I was reading this article and stumbled upon this line

First, presidential dispensation is useful, but it's not remotely permanent. White House occupants change. A more authoritarian chief executive than Obama won't be bound by what he does.

The author comes up with this statement while discussing about a draconian and outdated law which many feel can be "overturned" by President Obama.

I looked into the dictionary meaning of the word "dispensation", but nowhere it means "overturned". The dictionary quotes that dispensation means to make special exemption for someone or distribution of stuff.

Can someone help me clarify the meaning of dispensation in this context and is it an oft used meaning of the said word?

4 Answers 4


Here's a bit more context from the article:

Wu says the way to fix this intolerable situation is to persuade President Obama to fix it:

"The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is egregiously over-broad in a way that has clearly imposed on the rights and liberties of Americans.  
With just one speech, the president can set things right."

But no, he can't. At least, not in a way we could trust.

First, presidential dispensation is useful, but it's not remotely permanent. White House occupants change.

In context this means that Wu says Obama is in a a position to change the interpretation of the law (i.e. grant dispensation), but the article's author contends that this isn't much use, as the next president can do just the opposite.

  • Thanks for the reply Chris. I got it from the context that Obama can change the law, but it imputes a different meaning to dispensation than the one I am generally aware of( making exemptions). If you dont mind, can you add a few more examples of dispensation used in the sense as in the article? Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:55
  • @Pavan, it's not really a different meaning, it's not about changing the law, but changing the interpretation of the law, which is essentially the same as granting exemptions - in both cases the law is worded the same, but the scope is different.
    – Chris H
    Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 9:16

Dispensation means exemption from a rule or usual requirement.

From what I understand of the sentence, it suggests, in this context that Obama has exemption from a particular rule/requirement, but once he leaves the White House, he'll be as susceptible to it as anyone else is.

It's something he's exempt from doing, just because he's president.

Without knowing what that rule or requirement is, the sentence becomes a more broad statement, implying that he's got exemption from a great deal of responsibilities while he's president.


With the addition of the link providing greater context, I'm inclined to agree with Chris H's answer, where the dispensation isn't for Obama, but granted by him.

  • It reads to me more like granting dispensation is within Obama's gift - but a link to a bit more context would be a great help.
    – Chris H
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:38
  • @ChrisH Sorry for missing the link. I edited my post Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:39
  • With the addition of the link, I'm inclined to agree with @ChrisH
    – Dan Hanly
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:43
  • But 'just one speech' seems to be put on the same level as 'presidential dispensation' in the article, and I'm sure the US law-making or even law-interpreting process involves rather more than that. Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 16:03

The OP asked 'What does "dispensation" mean in this context? In that particular context it means the granting of exemption from a rule by someone who has the power to do so, in this case the President.

It was originally, I think I am right in saying, an ecclesiastical term. The Popes, and lesser clerics, used to (possibly still do) grant dispensations to individuals or groups from adherence to religious laws.

There are other meanings of the word 'dispensation'. One of them is 'a political, religious, or social system prevailing at a particular time'.

Another meaning relates to the dispensing of medication.


Dispensation may mean the things already mentioned, but why has nobody said

Dispensation means

a system of order, government, or organization of a nation, community, etc., esp. as existing at a particular time. "scholarship is conveyed to a wider audience than under the old dispensation" synonyms: system, order, arrangement, organization

[first Google hit for "dispensation meaning"]???

  • I agree, it is a good definition, however I'm not sure that particular explanation works in the context of the article. Unless I'm just missing it.
    – Dan Hanly
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:50
  • I'm taking the meaning to be intended as being broadly synonymous with 'backing' or 'support' here - 'The support (perhaps ratified by legislation – but 'just one speech' is mentioned) of the present administration'. Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 15:57
  • Here is an article using the two-word string in the generalised 'endorsement by the President' sense: PRESIDENTIAL DISPENSATION: Vigil Gets President Clinton's Stamp of Approval. HOWEVER, it appears that the term is a compound noun with a very specific and local meaning in Haiti Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 19:51

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