The Limits of Presidential Power: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law

January 29, 2018


by Lisa Manheim, Associate Professor of Law, and Kathryn Watts, Jack R. MacDonald, Endowed Chair, University of Washington School of Law 

Over the course of the past year, a seemingly endless stream of questions have emerged concerning what the law does, and does not, allow the President of the United States to do. For example, can the president build his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border? Can he impose a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States? Can he rollback various Obama-era environmental regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan? Can he fire Robert Mueller?

Notably, these sorts of questions are being asked not only by lawyers and others in the legal arena. They are being asked by people all across the country.

In response to these types of questions, we wrote a guide aimed at a general audience that provides a crash course on the laws that both empower and limit the President of the United States. That book, The Limits of Presidential Power: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law, is now available. We hope that our book provides an accessible and understandable guide to the what, why, and how of the laws that both govern the president and empower citizens.

We worked hard to keep our guide concise—but without sacrificing breadth or precision. We hit that balance at 178 pages, which allows it to be read fairly quickly. It begins with an overview of the federal government, including a discussion of the relationship between the federal government and state governments. It then discusses the powers that the law provides a president, including the power to appoint and remove key government officials, to veto laws, and to act as the nation’s commander-in-chief. Next it turns to the three main tools a president might use to exercise his powers. These tools include executive orders, involvement in agency rulemaking, and the exercise of enforcement-related discretion. Our book then identifies and explores legally supported checks on presidential power emanating from Congress, the Executive Branch, the federal courts, state governments, and non-governmental actors, including the media. We then turn to a case study—the evolution of climate change policy—in order to demonstrate the enormity of presidential power, as well as its limits. The book concludes with suggestions for how individuals can use their knowledge of the laws of presidential power to more effectively participate in politics. We discuss, for example, the importance of voting in all elections at all levels of government, as well as the possibility of commenting on proposed agency rules via

One of the main messages of our book is that the president possesses an enormous amount of power but that his power is not unlimited. Instead, a president’s actions can be supported by, or opposed by, numerous different actors, including members of Congress, the courts, states, the media, and people like you.