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The U.S. presidency is the most powerful office in the world, but it is set up to fail. And the power is the problem. Beginning as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy, the presidency has grown over two centuries into a towering central command for global decisions about war, economy, and justice. The president can bomb more places, spend more money, and influence more people than any other figure in history. His reach is almost boundless.

Reach does not promote desired results. Each major president has changed the world, but none has changed it as he liked. Often just the opposite. Rising power elicits demands on that power, at home and abroad, that exceed the capabilities of leaders. Rising power also inspires resistance, from jealous friends as much as determined adversaries. Dominance motivates mounting commitments, exaggerated promises, and widening distractions – “mission creep,” in its many infectious forms.

Despite their dominance, modern presidents have rarely achieved what they wanted because they have consistently overcommitted, over-promised, and overreached. They have run in too many directions at once. They have tried to achieve success too fast. They have departed from their priorities. And they have become too preoccupied with managing crises, rather than leading the country in desired directions. This was the case for presidents as diverse as Lyndon Johnson, burdened by a war in Vietnam he did not want to fight, and Ronald Reagan, distracted during his second term by the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Extraordinary power has pushed even the most ambitious presidents to become largely reactive – racing to put out the latest fire, rather than focusing on the most important goals. The crises caused by small and distant actors have frequently defined the presidents. The time and resources spent on crises have diminished the attention to matters with much greater significance for the nation as a whole. Presidents frequently lose control of their agendas because they are too busy deploying their power flagrantly, rather than targeting it selectively. This happened with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom spent much of their presidencies fighting wars abroad that did not make the country safer.

Unmatched capabilities and ambitions encourage undisciplined decision-making, followed by stubborn efforts to make good on poor choices. These are the “sunk costs” that hang over the heads of powerful leaders determined to make sure nothing sinks, except their own presidencies. As much as they try, presidents cannot redeem the past nor control the present. Their most effective use of power is investing in future changes defined around a limited set of national economic, social, and military priorities. Priorities matter most for successful leaders, but presidents forget them in the ever-denser fog of White House decision-making.

Thomas Jefferson anticipated these circumstances two centuries ago. Although he valued virtue and strength in leaders, Jefferson recognized that these qualities were potential sources of despotism as much as democracy. The virtuous and the strong often try to do too much and they adopt tyrannical practices in pursuit of worthy, now corrupted, purposes. Machiavelli’s prince, who promotes the public good through ruthless policies, was a warning for eighteenth century American readers against centralized power run amok.

Like other founders steeped in the history of empires, Jefferson wanted to insure that the United States remained a republic with restrained, modest, and cautious leaders. He envisioned a president who embodied wisdom above all – a philosopher president more than a warrior president or a businessman president. For Jefferson, the essential qualities of leadership came from the intellect of the man who occupied the office.

The checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution divided power to prevent presidential tyranny, but they did not guarantee the election of presidents with intellect, prudence, or personal restraint. Fragmented authority could be just as flagrant and misguided as centralized authority and it could franchise its despotism in multiplying offices and agencies with similar effects to the dictatorial prince. According to Jefferson, powerful democracy ultimately required wisdom and self-denial in its leaders, more than constitutional barriers. Democratic leaders had to remain introspective and ascetic as their country grew more dynamic and prosperous.

Writing on the eve of the country’s first burst of expansion, Jefferson warned that the nation’s leaders may one day “shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble.” Restrained use of power and disciplined focus on the national interest were the only antidotes to excess, despotism, and decline. “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power,” Jefferson wrote, “and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Jefferson’s heirs did not heed his words. By the mid-twentieth century the rapid growth of American power made frequent misuse unavoidable and effective leadership nearly unattainable. The United States strayed from its democratic values more than any elected president could correct, despite repeated public hopes for a savior. Leaders pursued goals – for wealth, influence, and security – that undermined the democracy they aimed to preserve. Too often they sacrificed democratic procedures – supporting dictators abroad and increasing secrecy at home – for these other goals.

The widening gap between power and values produced President Donald Trump, elected to promote raw power above all. He is the final fall of the founders’ presidency – the absolute antithesis of what they expected for the office. President Trump was not inevitable, but the rise and fall of America’s highest office had a historical logic that explains the current moment, and how we might move forward.

This post originally appeared on: http://notevenpast.org.

Please purchase a copy of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.

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We are living in a trying time for our democracy. Many of us are questioning the survival of our deeply divided society. Seventy-five years ago, Americans faced an even graver danger when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying much of our navy and killing 2,403 Americans. The enemy then was a foreign power, but the challenges at home were not very different from what we see around us today.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was deeply divided. Most Americans had not recovered the wealth they lost during the Great Depression, and they remained insecure about their futures in a weak economy. Insecurity fed bigotry and intolerance.

The vast majority of Americans opposed war against the fascist powers. They remembered the costs of the First World War and the unsatisfying results. They hated many elements of fascism but did not believe it was worse than Soviet communism, British imperialism, or the continued growth of “Oriental,” “African” and “Jewish” groups in the lands conquered by the fascists. “America First” was a rallying cry for ordinary white Americans who felt mistreated by elites, scarred by economic difficulties and dislocated by international policies.

The Japanese intended their attack to inflame the divisions in the United States, much as Russian, Chinese, the Islamic State group and North Korean leaders seek to exploit our divisions today. But contrary to these expectations, the United States emerged more united in 1941 because it had leaders, especially President Franklin Roosevelt, who tied the war effort to public service, not partisan positions or special interests.

Defending American territory and defeating those who threatened it, Roosevelt spoke directly to citizens: “Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories – the changing fortunes of war.”

The American people heard the call and responded. They would collectively serve their country in different forms – some on the battlefield, many more in factories – to improve the world, despite their lingering reservations and differences of viewpoint. Roosevelt articulated a big goal for all groups, and he made everyone a participant, a stakeholder, and, yes, a public servant. He called the war effort a “covenant with each other before all the world.”

After the war, the public service ethic inspired by Pearl Harbor continued. Americans from all backgrounds served their country in the military, politics, philanthropy and many other fields. Through the G.I. Bill, public service provided access to education and homeownership, both designed to bring citizens together in improving themselves and sharing neighborhoods. For the pre-baby boomer generation that lived through Pearl Harbor as young men and women, working for your country, paying taxes for the common good and defining your success by your public service were essential parts of citizenship. They built the schools, roads, power plants and businesses that continue to undergird our prosperity.

But by the late 1960s, amid controversies over civil rights and an unpopular war in Vietnam, many Americans rejected public service. Bipartisan agreement in 1973 to eliminate conscription and make the military an all-volunteer profession contributed to an abandonment of public service as a marker of citizenship. By the end of the century, the majority of our nation’s business, academic and media elites had never served their country in any serious way – a complete reversal from a generation earlier, when public service was a necessary step to leadership and respectability.

Today, we will never overcome our current divisions by continuing to argue over the issues that divide us. Nor will we rally together magically behind a charismatic outsider who promises to blow it all up. The lesson of Pearl Harbor is that a divided nation needs a common mission and a shared commitment to public service to build new bonds for cooperation, as occurred 75 years ago.

Programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps are a start, but they remain very small. Our citizens can do so much more.

We should begin with our crumbling infrastructure and fighting terrorism, two topics that received extensive attention in the recent presidential campaign. Our national and state leaders should create new avenues for young Americans to get involved in addressing these needs, perhaps volunteering their skills for a year or two, followed by assistance with education. Young men and women can apply their talents as engineers, translators, social workers and even soldiers. They will learn to work with people very different from themselves and take pride in contributing to the public good. They will define their success not just in what they earn, but how they serve their fellow citizens.

Our divided country needs a new generation to get out of its segregated neighborhoods and away from its electronic devices to work together in public service. That is what the Pearl Harbor generation did when attacked by a foreign foe. Young men and women are fed up with politics as usual, and they are eager to become another “greatest generation,” if only we will give them a chance.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 3 December 2016.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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