Posts Tagged ‘Clinton’

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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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I love rigorous toe-to-toe debates, but I hate what I have seen from our presidential candidates in their recent two performances. Debates are supposed to force a detailed and focused interrogation of issues. The recent presidential encounters have encouraged escalating attacks and a personal viciousness accompanied by saccharine smiles. Debates are designed to create a clarity of positions and a contrast in styles. These encounters have favored so many slippery shifts in position that it is less clear today what the candidates believe than when we started. Most of all, debates are intended to showcase leadership demeanor and command capabilities. I am sorry, but Tuesday’s “town hall” brawl undermined any opportunity to assess these qualities. The two candidates spent their time interrupting one another, arguing with the moderator, and flaunting their postures as aggressive warriors. At moments, it looked like they were keen to clobber one another. These displays of belligerence are harmful on the high school playground, and they are deadly in the White House. Shame on President Obama and Governor Romney. They are much better than what they have become in this campaign.

 

I am not nostalgic for a mythical moment of “clean” and “substantive” politics in American society. I know very well that such a moment never occurred. Despite their powdered wigs and dignified public demeanor, even our nation’s founders engaged in vicious attacks against opponents. Two of the greatest early American politicians, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, literally came to blows, with Hamilton dying from a bullet fired by Burr’s dueling gun. American politics have always involved brawling. Negative advertising is only a modern form of the traditional campaign.

 

What is new, however, is the use of information overload to obscure positions. Both President Obama and Governor Romney are throwing more “facts” at listeners than ever before, but they are refusing to offer coherent argued positions. They each claim to support lower taxes, increased government revenue, lower deficits, and increased spending. They each pledge to assert more American strength abroad while bringing the troops home. Most confusing, President Obama and Governor Romney agree that job creation is a priority and they simultaneously oppose jobs plans, programs, or even targeted investments in job creation and training at home. Watching them throw around the data from all directions, one gets more information but less clarity about how purpose and policy will fit together. It is like listening to kids argue about who started a fight. As they debate the facts, it becomes easier to continue the fight than create a useful path forward.

 

We need debates in our campaigns, but not these. The problem is more than format. It is about what we as citizens have come to expect in an age of talk radio and flaming blogs where a premium is placed on who shouts loudest and longest, not who makes the most persuasive argument under intensive questioning. We are a public culture of argument without real debate, and that needs to change if we ever want a true marketplace of ideas. At present we have an overload of facts and positions, without the interrogation and testing necessary for finding the truth.

 

So here is what I propose: Let’s scrap the open “foreign policy” brawl that is planned for the next debate. Instead, the public should demand that the two candidates sit down together at a table (please no more shoulder-to-shoulder jousting!) with an agreed focus on one discrete topic, for example tax policy or job creation or the Iranian nuclear project. A real debate would require each candidate to explain what he will do in the next four years to address the specific challenge. After that, each candidate should be allowed to cross-examine the other with short questions, not statements.

 

Under this scheme, President Obama can describe the budget he hopes to pass. Governor Romney can then ask about details regarding deficits and pork in Obama’s proposed budget. Governor Romney can then outline his own proposed budget. President Obama can ask him about details concerning income inequality and cuts to essential services in Romney’s plan. This is the form of dignified interrogation that works in corporate boardrooms, in academic seminars, and in policy-making bodies like the National Security Council. It is also how generals assess competing war plans. Why should we expect less of our presidential candidates?

 

Proposing a detailed plan and defending it against substantive questions about its content and consequences – that is the most effective test of leadership. That is also what presidential debates should be about. We have had enlightening debates of this kind in the past with diverse candidates, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot in 1996, as well as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. The time has come for a return to policy focus without flamboyant personal attacks. The future of the United States will not be determined by who is best at tearing down his opponent. The progress of our society will hinge on implementing policies that prove, under scrutiny, most helpful to the public.

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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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