The Wisdom of Limited Power: How to Fix the “Impossible Presidency”

September 11, 2017

Reflecting on America’s role in the world a quarter-century after the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson expressed hope that “our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.” George Washington voiced a similar sentiment in his farewell address: “If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected.”

Jefferson and Washington envisioned a large, wealthy, and well-defended democracy that would trade with the rest of the world. They rejected an American “empire” that would seek domination across the globe, believing this would destroy the virtues of a free and open republic, and empower greedy and militaristic tendencies. Freedom was more important than power, and the United States had to resist the temptation, as John Quincy Adams put it, to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Such flagrant use of power, he warned, would embroil the nation in “wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of [American] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”

Although political rhetoric in the United States focuses on freedom, the dominating principle of American democracy in practice has become the accumulation of power. America has defined its national security around a concept of preponderance, seeking military superiority in all regions. It has defined prosperity around consuming more than other people, even if that means depleting resources for future generations and destroying the environment. And political leaders now define their success by holding on to power — rather than serving a larger cause. Political ambition is not new, but the founders never expected politics to be a permanent career, which it now is for one of the oldest and longest-serving cohorts of congressmen and senators in American history.

These were precisely the behaviors that worried Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. America has abandoned the wisdom of its founders, often without realizing it. The contemporary American accumulation of global power is a historical phenomenon, the result of a series of decisions made over more than two centuries, with little anticipation of the implications for democracy.

As I discuss in  my new book, The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, time and again, circumstances drove well-intentioned American presidents to expand political institutions and mobilize more resources to serve the national interest. Short-term necessity transformed national purpose, and each step toward building a more powerful presidency encouraged future accumulations of power. Abraham Lincoln expanded the powers of the office to win the Civil War, which set the stage for Franklin D. Roosevelt to stretch presidential authority further to combat the Great Depression and fascist aggressors. During the Cold War, presidents built on Roosevelt’s legacy to create a national security state that defeated communism and promoted unprecedented wealth at home and among allies. The enlarged presidency of each generation responded not to presidential plans, or even preferences, but rather to growing demands for American executive power.

The modern presidency is the central actor in this history, but its evolution is not what presidents expected, or what the founders anticipated. Indeed, the authors of the U.S. Constitution would not recognize the office today. Article II is detailed about the election of the president, but vague about his role in governing the country. He is commander-in-chief, he can make treaties (subject to Senate approval), and he can grant pardons (except in cases of impeachment). Beyond those limited duties, the Constitution says little about how he will execute the laws of the land and lead the people. The vagueness of the founders has made the office malleable to the men who have held it and the times they live in.

Lincoln was the first president to conscript citizens into federal military forces without going through the states, and he used his control over federal lands in the West to give resources directly to settler families and establish a new system of public universities. These were reactions to the pressures of Western settlement and the challenge of Southern secession. Roosevelt felt obligated to do more in a time of graver economic deprivation and global threats. He created a labyrinth of executive agencies that dispensed money directly to needy citizens — including the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Recovery Administration. He also made the president a provider of civilian pensions, through the Social Security Act. In managing World War II, Roosevelt used the Office of Price Administration and numerous executive orders to impose wage and price controls, as well as to mandate racial inclusion in war industries. He claimed these new powers to rescue capitalism and wage “total war.”

Communist threats motivated Roosevelt’s Cold War successors, especially Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, to build the largest peacetime military in the nation’s history and direct large parts of the world economy through aid, development, and market reforms. Truman and Eisenhower were reluctant to amass so much power, but felt they had no choice with dangerous enemies abroad and fearful citizens at home demanding increased security. Even when leaders knew that popular perceptions of threats were exaggerated — during the height of McCarthyism in the early 1950s and the years of a feared “missile gap” later in the decade — presidents felt enormous pressure to display firmness, strength, and control. Mass communication through radio and television magnified this phenomenon, allowing alarmist rhetoric and images to spread with greater speed. Eisenhower voiced his misgivings in his own farewell address, warning of a “military-industrial complex” and “the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”

Eisenhower was prescient. Power creates commitments, at home and abroad. It encourages rising demands and inspires enemies who resent those with more of it. Wielding enhanced power makes it difficult for leaders to focus on what really matters. When you can do so many things, it becomes hard to say no. “Mission creep” is the disease of the well-endowed.

This history explains how the United States became an overstretched empire and a democracy in crisis. One consequence of ever-increasing power has been expanding global obligations. Presidents have found themselves “entangled,” as Washington predicted, in inherited wars and programs that are too expensive to complete and too important to drop. In Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, the United States has spent decades fighting to prevent defeat in conflicts where defeat is only a possibility because it intervened in the first place.

The same is true for states where the United States provides billions of dollars in annual military aid, like Pakistan, Egypt, and Israel. Having aided these countries for decades, American leaders believe continued funding is necessary for national security, and the specific programs have strong advocates in Washington. For reasons of security and domestic politics, presidents prefer to continue the status quo rather than risk worse conditions by withholding aid. It is hard to reject new funding requests when past commitments are so well-established, and the unknown devil may be worse than the one we already know (and support).

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama confronted this precise dilemma repeatedly, and found themselves drawn into even more international responsibilities than their predecessors, with unsatisfying results. At the same time, they were mired in complex debates about health care, financial regulations, and income inequality at home. Examining the calendars of the presidents since World War II, the quantity and range of issues on their daily schedules has grown exponentially. Presidents must be attentive to more global actors, state and non-state, than ever before. And the 24-hour barrage of news and information leaves them little time to think.

Abandoning wisdom for crisis management, recent presidents have thrown their power at problems — especially with military force — rather than thinking about the best uses (and non-uses) of their capabilities for important national needs. The continued maintenance of large troop deployments in East Asia is an example where traditional force projection has not made the United States more secure, and potentially just the opposite, in light of North Korean nuclear capabilities. The pressure to act at ever greater-speed and distance diminishes the opportunities for leaders to think about why, how, and where they act. Strategy has become a lost art in the White House. Undisciplined power is lazy and sloppy.

Citizens elected Donald Trump to “blow up” this system, but his bombast and bullying are more of the same, as revealed by his escalation of American military commitments in Afghanistan and Syria, contrary to many of his campaign promises. The most favorable possible outcome from the current turmoil will be acceptance of new limits on the power of the president, and the nation’s leaders as a whole.

The United States needs more discipline in defining its interests and aligning resources behind them. Since at least the Second World War the United States has reacted to multiplying threats and opportunities, begetting more of the same. That dynamic has distorted the presidency, making holders of the office more prone to deploy force and spend money in faraway conflicts without seriously considering the likelihood of victory or the impact on national interests.

Instead of following existing patterns, presidents should show more restraint, make more careful choices, and lower expectations for what they can achieve. They should begin by reexamining legacy commitments and embracing multilateral, less American-centric alternatives, where possible. This is the opposite of the militaristic unilateralism that Trump has embraced at times, and the isolationist nationalism he has defended at other moments. The United States needs a selective strategy for concentrating American resources in crucial areas, while creatively pursuing alternatives elsewhere.

A less conventionally “powerful” United States might become a more democratic, humane, and free country. This was the wisdom the founders valued more than accumulated power. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln in another moment of national crisis, only right makes might, and too much might undermines the right.


Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author or editor of nine books on strategy, leadership, and foreign policy. His newest book, released in early September 2017, is The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.

Image: National Archives