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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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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 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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