Election

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No modern president has been prepared for the responsibilities of office. The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general, or a party leader. The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems. The pace is breathless, even on the quietest day, and the stakes are enormous, even for the smallest decisions. Nearly every waking hour is monumental for the president of the United States. Mere mortals do not live (or survive) in these circumstances.

Despite the crushing intensity, the president is expected to be ever-ready for crises and forward-thinking for strategy; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. Although no human being can do all the things expected of the president, each individual elected to this mighty office must claim that he or she can. The sensationalist rhetoric of social media only reinforces that unrealistic claim. Like the power of the Greek gods, the promise of the presidency always exceeds what is possible.

Every president struggles with this gap between promise and possibility. Some try to leverage an ever-larger group of advisers, others seek to centralize authority with a small set of loyalists. Most do a little of both, relying on their own energy, insight, and instincts to differentiate which issues require attention at a given moment. Bill Clinton, with his enormous intellectual capabilities, was the master of ad hoc leadership. In a matter of hours (sometimes very late night hours), he could become an expert on the smallest policy details, understand their interconnection, and sell a new initiative to diverse audiences with unparalleled clarity. He remains the greatest policy entrepreneur of his generation.

But that was not enough. In his first year, President Clinton was blindsided by crises in Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia, and Rwanda that he initially under-estimated, and then misunderstood. For all his focus on domestic issues, especially the economy, Clinton also struggled to manage racial conflict and other social issues at home in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and the urban riots that preceded his election. In his own words, Clinton was an extraordinary maneuverer and “counter-puncher,” but that left his leadership short of national (and international) expectations. Even he was overwhelmed, beaten down, and humbled in his first White House year.

No president will ever escape the gap between the expectations of the office and the limitations of the individual. The way to begin, however, is to replace denial with frank recognition that presidents are destined to fail more than they succeed. To conduct an effective presidency, the next holder of the office must choose his or her battles carefully, conserve energy, and direct maximum effort at the issues that really matter most. Less is more and planned disciplined, rather than rapid maneuvering, is absolutely crucial.

Presidents must have priorities that they connect closely with policy. Ideology is not enough. Nor is energy and determination. To manage the impossible, the effective American president enters office ready to formulate a strategy that allocates overtaxed time and resources to things that will matter most for his or her conception of the national interest. Keeping less important issues off the presidential agenda is absolutely essential, and that involves discipline and delegation.

In his best moments, when working to reduce the deficit and stimulate the economy, Clinton followed this model. In his worst moments, when hopping from one foreign policy crisis to another, he did not. The next president would do well to study this experience.

This post originally appeared at: http://firstyear2017.org/blog/leading-the-impossible-presidency (26 January 2016).

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The United States had a secret weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. Many of the best minds from Germany and occupied Europe fled fascist hatred and came to our shores.

Despite immigration restrictions, the United States took these refugees in, and they helped us to win the war. People such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller built the first atomic bomb and prepared American society to understand and defeat the enemy.

A similar process is at work today, especially in Texas.

Our state is filled with hardworking men and women who came to the United States for opportunity after fleeing repression in their countries of birth. These are many of the best students at our universities who make our society the most innovative in the world. These are the men and women we meet in our neighborhoods who understand the value of democracy and free enterprise better than many American-born citizens, because they experienced the pain of its absence before coming here.

Meeting the interpreter

One of us writing this piece, a veteran of the Iraq War, recently met his former interpreter, a Kurd, while shopping in a Texas supermarket. What could be more American?

Assim, the Kurdish interpreter, immigrated to the United States to escape the violence and hatred in Iraq. He brought valuable language and cultural skills to the United States, a strong work ethic, and a love for the promise of the American dream. Assim is one of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees who attest to the power of freedom and provide crucial assistance to our efforts to protect that freedom. We are all stronger, as Americans, for his presence and his patriotism.

We have always valued security and taken measures to screen and monitor recent arrivals, but we have also frequently voiced attitudes of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance, which we are hearing again today. Nonetheless, in every generation, from the Einsteins to the Kissingers and now to the Assims, these immigrants have been the engine for our innovation, growth and improvement.

Simply put, the United States will continue to prosper and defeat its enemies because it attracts freedom-loving people from around the world. That has been our source of success since Sam Houston came to Texas more than 180 years ago. The good guys have come to America to defeat the bad guys back in their old homes. And the good guys have won.

Balanced approach needed

Of course surveillance of potential terrorists and restrictions on immigration are necessary to protect against violent attacks on our society. But these legitimate actions must be balanced against the need to continue attracting talent to our communities. Much of that talent will come from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other countries. Middle Eastern immigrants provide vital knowledge of the cultures and societies with which America interacts in our struggle to defeat violent extremism.

A plan that excludes all refugees from these areas diminishes our ability to defeat the people who most imperil our safety. If we do that, we will become a closed and fearful island rather than an open and innovative society.

As was true when fighting Nazi Germany, the refugees are our secret weapon for defeating the advocates of hate.

Imagine if the United States had not admitted Einstein or Fermi or Kissinger because they came from enemy countries and were not “good Christians.” American society would have been poorer and weaker because of such restrictions. We also would have had a harder time winning the Second World War, containing communism and generating the prosperity that has made America a world leader.

Openness, innovation and diversity are the historical recipe for freedom and success in the United States. They are the most potent weapons against all forms of hatred, violence and intolerance. We must emphasize our values in all of our policies, and we must stand against cowardly efforts to depart from who we are as Americans.

We are the society of Einstein, Fermi, Kissinger, Albright, Assim and so many other mixed recent arrivals. We are the frontier of change. We must bring the hungry, suffering and hard-working to our frontier, and we will always win.

Co-Authored with Liam Kozma (Master’s Student, LBJ School and Officer in the U.S. Army)

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle (19 November 2015).

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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 eight 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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