war on the rocks

What’s the Most We Can Hope for From a President, Even If He is a Stable Genius?

February 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Has the Presidency Become Impossible to Manage?from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Jeremi Suri, The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office (Basic Books, 2017)

Can Donald Trump handle being president? This is a question that has been on the minds of many in Washington, the mainstream media, and perhaps some world leaders, since the 45th president took office. The question re-emerges with striking frequency, usually in the wake of the president’s latest tweet, questionable claim, or impolitic remark.

But few observers have raised the larger, more significant question: Can anyone, regardless of background, talent, preparation, mental faculties, rhetorical gifts, or other qualities, successfully manage what has become an overwhelmingly difficult job? Jeremi Suri argues in his new book, The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, that the demands have come to exceed the capabilities of any one human being.

Suri looks to five of America’s celebrated chief executives to understand the personal qualities and circumstances that allowed them to achieve their feats of leadership — Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and, as Suri sees it, the best of them all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). The first four of these presidents, he argues, added something substantial to the office — majesty, populism, rhetorical virtuosity, strenuous engagement — which FDR fully leveraged to accomplish his unrivaled achievements. The apotheosis of presidential mastery, FDR “…was the culmination of one hundred and fifty years of growth in the reach of the presidency, the personal role of the president, and the public expectations surrounding the office and the man in it…The country never looked back.”

FDR’s successors, on the other hand, each failed in some way to deliver a remarkable presidency. According to Suri, they have fought losing battles against the U.S. government bureaucracy, which often works at cross-purposes with the Oval Office. Overscheduled victims of the inbox, these men have lurched from crisis to crisis while shouldering expectations that are simply more than one person can handle. Gone is time for considered thought or the opportunity to focus on a few strategic priorities. Post-WWII presidents have been engaged in a pell-mell race against time, pitched battles against intractable Congresses, and faced a mountain of obstacles that even the most exceptional personal gifts could not help them to surmount.

Our six contributors — academics, practitioners, and some who straddle both worlds — generally agree that each occupant of the Oval Office since 1945 has faced great burdens. They have operated at an increasingly breakneck pace in order to keep up with whatever might cross their desks. Our reviewers concede that the American president is certainly the subject of great (possibly inflated) expectations on the part of the public. Indeed, as Jeff Engel notes, most of our recent presidents have left office looking careworn, exhausted, and distinctly older than they did at their first inaugural balls.

But the contributors also ask hard questions about the fundamental planks of Suri’s argument. Is the narrative of progressive decline credible, or is it simply nostalgia for imagined glory days? What is the standard by which historical presidencies should be judged? Is the president the only causal agent that can explain outcomes? If the presidency has indeed become impossible, what can be done about it? Finally, is Donald Trump the perfect exemplar of Suri’s impossible presidency thesis or a refutation of it?

Robert Cook and Kori Schake point out that American history is full of unexceptional presidents. Suri’s narrative of deterioration after FDR does not account for the parade of middling chief executives earlier in American history. What about Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, or Calvin Coolidge? Schake notes that the founders would likely have been far more comfortable with a limited presidency than an FDR-like figure, and that perhaps the brilliance of their original design is precisely that unexceptional people can do the job.

David Adesnik asks what the standard is for the “success” and “failure” of presidencies, whether we might better grade their tenures on a curve, and how to appraise the performance of presidents who had both great accomplishments yet also presided over historic disasters. He and Luke Hartig both note that assessing any president’s performance is impossible without an examination of the composition and outlook of Congress. Several of Suri’s “successful” presidents enjoyed great support on the Hill, while the disappointments he cites — Clinton and Obama among them — faced largely hostile legislatures. Schake, too, notes that engaging with the literature that explores causal factors beyond the presidency would have improved the book’s argument. Hartig reminds us that there are forces acting on the presidents of today that their predecessors did not face, or at least not to the same degree: political polarization exacerbated by shadowy donors and gerrymandering; a media landscape in which sensationalism and playing to the public’s worst instincts brings in revenue; and an electorate seemingly uninterested in holding their leaders accountable.

Derek Chollet largely agrees with Suri’s premise, and places the book in the canon of prior histories of the presidency by Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Neustadt, and Theodore Lowy. Chollet had a front row seat to the challenges President Obama faced in the White House. He notes that, to some extent, the difficulty of the job is inherent to it, because all the hard decisions get made before they reach the president’s desk. But he also underscores one of Suri’s key conclusions: A core problem of the modern presidency is the outsize (and unrealistic) expectations of the public.

Engel is also sympathetic to Suri’s argument, and points to the author’s consistent and admirable willingness to tackle the big questions in all of his work. But he argues that the problem has less to do with how presidents manage their time or the international commitments they make on America’s behalf, than it does with the overall pace of events in the world today as a result of communication technologies and media.

What to do about the impossible presidency? Suri suggests perhaps breaking the job into two parts, separating the ceremonial from the leadership and policy duties, along the lines of some European models. He also argues that presidents must do a better job of prioritizing and focusing on the most important strategic issues, thus allowing them time for much-needed thought and contemplation. Suri further urges the development of mechanisms to help the American public return to fact-based debate and become better informed through, for example, greater funding of educational and research institutions.

There is a consensus among our contributors that changing to a European model is unrealistic in the imaginable future. A formal change of that magnitude seems a long reach indeed in today’s polarized politics. While it is also perhaps desirable to have a more informed public, the contributors have a hard time seeing how that problem is readily solved, even if educational and research organizations were better capitalized. As Hartig points out, it is the distrust of just such “elite” institutions that seemed to have helped usher Donald Trump into the White House. Of course, several of our writers note, any president could theoretically choose to focus on a few key issues and take better control of an overburdened schedule. This brings us to Trump.

There is divided opinion on whether or not he is doing exactly what Suri suggests. Schake points out that Trump is, in fact, focusing on a few key issues — immigration, trade, taxes. Engel notes that he is leaving himself plenty of white space on the calendar for golf and “executive time.” But just because Trump is not tackling all the tasks that consumed his predecessors, Engel argues, does not mean that the need to deal with them has disappeared. And even if the job has become unmanageable, Robert Cook points out that the president retains one power in particular that should perhaps worry us more than his overburdened schedule: the ability to deploy a massive nuclear arsenal, largely on his own orders.

All of the contributors seem to agree with Suri on at least one count. No solution to the problems he identifies is possible without the American public setting realistic expectations and holding all of their leaders to account. How to make this happen, one hopes, is the subject of Suri’s next book.

 

Celeste Ward Gventer is an Associate Editor of the Texas National Security Review, a National Security Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, and an adjunct analyst for the RAND Corporation. She currently consults widely with governments in Europe and the Middle East on defense organization and reform and is based in Amberg, Germany. As a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Texas, she is writing a dissertation on Eisenhower’s 1953 and 1958 Department of Defense reforms, inter-service rivalry, and the New Look strategy. She was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush Administration and served two tours in Iraq as a civilian. 

Image: White House