Data Stories How Powerful is the U.S. President?

Zachary Elkins 14 February 2021


If there is one thing that preoccupies drafters of constitutions, it is how much power to give the executive. Still, it is not at all clear—maybe not even to drafters—how much power these executives wield compared to those in other constitutional systems.  For example, is the U.S. President hopelessly shackled by Madisonian checks and balances, or omnipotent?

Of course, it may seem like pure hubris to think that drafters control their creations at all.  Parchment barriers being what they are, executives can seem to wield power irrespective of their constitutional prerogatives.  After all, that extra-constitutional power was what Arthur Schlesinger meant when he described the U.S. Presidency as “imperial."  Schlesinger wasn't saying that the President's power was excessive necessarily, only that it didn't derive from the text.  But constitutions are not all works of fiction, and even when they are, some of them are worth reading and scoring (as my colleagues and I have discovered).   Fiction or non-fiction, the text is a good place to start. So what do they tell us about the relative power of the world's executives?  

Which powers should we count?

Power is multi-dimensional, of course.  Some Presidents might be able to start wars, but not intervene in the economy.  Some might be able to pardon their cronies, but not initiate and steer major legislation.  One can measure the degree of power within these particular domains, such as lawmaking power or military power. Or one could aggregate the various powers across these domains. Also, one could measure this power in absolute terms, or relative to the legislature.

Figure 1.  Distribution of Executive Power

Lawmaking Power.  In recent years, it seems that U.S. legislators have struggled to do much of anything to combat the infrastructure, health, and environmental catastrophes that seem to loom in the future.  Terry Moe and William Howell put the blame at the doorstep of the Presidency, which they view as utterly anemic in terms of advancing major laws.  Their claim is not a comparative one, but if you look at the global constitutional data, they're right.  The map in Figure 1 charts lawmaking power, taking into account some of the legislature’s counter-moves. The index is an aggregation of seven powers: (1) the power to initiate legislation; (2) the power to issue decrees; (3) the power to initiate constitutional amendments; (4) the power to declare states of emergency; (5) veto power; (6) the power to challenge the constitutionality of legislation; and (7) the power to dissolve the legislature.  

We note that one of the central methodological challenges is comparing across organizational structures. Some constitutions provide for single executives (e.g., presidentialism), others have dual executives (e.g., Presidents (or a monarch) and a Prime Minister), and some even have multiple executives (executive committee systems such as the Swiss model).

The scores depicted here represent the sum of these powers vested in any national executive (president, prime minister, or assigned to the government). But it might make sense to analyze the amount of lawmaking power within one of these systems. In the map below, focus on the Americas (the land of Presidents), and you'll see that the U.S. President is remarkably weak by Presidentialist standards.  

Figure 2.  Executive Power Across Space


Shifts in Executive Power over Time

Figure 3. Executive Lawmaking Power over Time

Venezuela and Ecuador may be bastions of executive power in 2020, but how has this changed?  To see, slide the year at the bottom of the gridmap (or the landmap, if you prefer).  The map is increasingly dark over time.  In fact, on average, executive lawmaking power has doubled since 1900 (see Figure 3).  And in 1850, the average constitution didn't have any of these powers.  Of course, the U.S. is seemingly stuck in time.  Its nearly powerless President remains powerless, as dark blue spots begin to surround it.  Almost like Virginia Lee Burton's "little house" which comes to be dwarfed by skyscrapers. 

Some countries vary over time. The heat map in Figure 4 describes the flow of executive power in each country over the last 200 years.  One can see the decided shift in France in 1960, when Charles de Gaulle created a more muscular office.  And I've been focused recently on differences in Brazil between the 1946 Republic and the 1988 Constitution.  Both documents seemingly create a powerful President.  But 1988 (which was almost a semi-parliamentary document) has nothing on 1946.  Indeed, we start to understand some of the legislative success of Juscelino Kubitshek.  Anyone one who can relocate a capital city from beautiful Rio to the unknown desolation of Brasilia, was able to exercise some power.

Figure 4. An Historical View of Executive Power



Zachary Elkins is Associate Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Comparative Constitutions Project.