Posts Tagged ‘president’

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Electing a president every four years is one of America’s most basic democratic rituals. Complaining about the candidates is as much a part of this ritual as pulling a lever — or pressing a button — in a voting booth. Presidential campaigns seem to bring out the worst in all of us: empty promises, simplistic policy statements, personal attacks and all of those wonderful negative advertisements. In our current moment, the ugly elements of presidential campaigning are perhaps more evident than ever before.

There is, however, a pattern to elections. Every four years, especially when an incumbent president is at the end of his second term, the race for the nation’s highest office becomes a contest to show which candidate can correct for the current president’s limitations. A competent and careful president — like George H.W. Bush — inspired opponents — especially Bill Clinton — who promised vision, energy and even a little risk-taking. Eight years of Clinton encouraged voters to turn to a disciplined, pious, and predictable successor: George W. Bush. Bush, of course, made Obama possible – a cerebral, pragmatic outsider who was the perfect anti-Bush.

The shifts in style hide the continuities in policy. Every president elected since 1988 has invested in economic growth by opening new markets, encouraging free trade, and keeping taxes low. Every president since 1988 has pursued an expansive foreign policy, including sanctions against “rogue regimes” and new deployments of American soldiers and sailors to distant societies. For all the partisan rancor, there has been little change in key domestic and foreign policies from one presidential administration to another.

We elect presidents on style, but they govern on substance. Unfortunately, the winning style is often not the right substance. Most presidents struggle in their first year to adjust from campaign mode to governing, which involves a major shift in focus. Generally, the policies in place have a logic and a momentum that are hard to change. The existing policies are often better on closer inspection than the alternatives promoted in campaigns.

The change in administrations is most meaningful in terms of priorities. Which programs will the new president champion? Which programs will he or she neglect? For foreign policy, which allies and adversaries will the new president prioritize? Which ones will he or she avoid?

The wisest presidents recognize that their governing powers are much more constrained than their campaign rhetoric allows. Once in office, they must choose carefully where to devote their time and energy. They must shoot for big achievements in a few areas, not fire wildly hoping to hit every possible target.

Presidential elections matter because they reorient national priorities. Style helps to define the issues most important to the candidate and the voters. After four years of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy focus, Clinton brought fresh attention to what was then a stagnant American economy. George W. Bush also ran on economic issues, but he promised to emphasize growth above fairness. Bush, of course, made security a priority after Sept. 11, 2001, and especially during his reelection campaign in 2004. Obama sought to abandon war and focus yet again on domestic needs. Priorities shift with the times; they define presidential success or failure.

This historical observation would serve us well as voters. We cannot avoid talking about a candidate’s style during the campaign season — it is on display every day in talk shows, debates and advertisements. We rarely hear many policy details, but we always have a chance to see how a candidate addresses a crowd, responds to a tough question or treats supporters on the street.

Instead of judging style in isolation, we should use it to assess the issues that make each candidate most and least comfortable. Which issues tug at the candidate’s heart? Which issues seem to elicit the most personal passion?

In the end, our democratic ritual will not produce a leader capable of doing all that we want. Our expectations are simply too high and our campaign rhetoric encourages an escalation of empty promises. Style, however, matters because it helps us to analyze which figure best matches what we see as the most important issues for the next four years. Elections are a time to articulate national priorities and find the right leaders for them.

In the 2016 election, the American people will have to summon the fortitude to examine candidates in this way. Otherwise, our elections will produce a president worthy only of our worst complaints. The presidency is the hardest job in the world — and choosing the president is often an ugly-but-necessary undertaking.

This article originally appeared in the Austin Statesman (11 October 2015).

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The U.S. presidency is the most talked about and least understood office in the world.

Presidents are elected to accomplish big things, but they spend most of their time focusing on problems that do not serve, and frequently contradict, their larger agendas. Presidents command the most powerful military in the world, but they repeatedly confront the frustrating limits of what they can achieve by force. Presidents are revered and followed around the globe, but they have trouble translating their celebrity into tangible influence. Most of all, presidents are elected by the people of the United States, but they spend most of their time in office cut off from any unscripted contact with ordinary citizens.

Presidential power is awesome and pathetic at the same time, and it’s time that Americans take some lessons from history and change our focus — and the questions we ask candidates — as we gear up to select our next president.

George Washington recognized the presidential paradox in his own time. The hero of the American Revolution proclaimed: “In a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.” Exasperated and worn out from eight years as the nation’s first president — arbitrating between the dueling positions of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and their many followers — Washington lamented that the highest office in the land was dependent on finding consensus among “factions” and other “self-interested” groups that encouraged division. In his farewell address, Washington famously advocated a “government for the whole” of the nation, but he knew that his presidency, and those of most successors, would fall short.

The Founding Fathers designed the presidency to rise above internal divisions but not to enforce unity. Too much division, they feared, would re-create the leaderless anarchy they experienced under the failed Articles of Confederation. The presidency was designed to give the U.S. government firm leadership. Too much unity, however, threatened to re-create the tyranny of European monarchies, also experienced by the Founding Fathers before their revolution. The men who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 sought to create a leader who would direct the entire government but still remain dependent on the other branches of government, the states and the people. They wanted a democrat with some monarchical powers — a “patriot king” bound by a constitution, as the historian Jack Rakove has explained.

This was a radically new vision of executive leadership in its time, and it has only become more problematic with each generation.

Presidents after Washington have embraced rising expectations for an office that leads a powerful, growing nation. Washington’s presidency covered less than half a continent, Thomas Jefferson’s more than doubled that size, and Andrew Jackson became the first true continental president — elected by citizens who were not from the first 13 colonies and who defined their citizenship by their ability to settle new lands, forcibly removing American Indians to far western territories. Abraham Lincoln, of course, turned a continent with diverse definitions of personal freedom into a unified anti-slavery society, and he fought a bloody civil war to make Southerners accept that change. William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson internationalized the continental power of the United States, promising to bring similar freedom and prosperity to other societies.

In the shadow of fascism, communism and other political extremes, Franklin Roosevelt and his Cold War successors lurched a step farther, making the United States the self-proclaimed global guardian of what Roosevelt called the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. By the dawn of the 21st century, it had become conventional wisdom among Americans that their country was the “indispensable nation” for the world. The president was, therefore, the indispensable world leader.

That common claim, voiced by nearly every presidential candidate today, reflects both the optimistic promise of the modern presidency and its disappointing limits. The president simply does not have the power, at home or abroad, to match expectations. The president has too many people to please and too many issues to address for any figure, especially one held to democratic standards. The scholar Richard Neustadt made this point more than 50 years ago, when he observed that presidents — even those with the popularity of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy — are forced to bargain for their power with numerous stakeholders, and they are often bargaining from weakness. President Barack Obama must have felt this acutely during recent budget disputes.

As Washington recognized in his time, the president is institutionally constrained by Congress, the Supreme Court, the states and the various partisan factions that have always dominated American political life. The president cannot raise money or make law without the approval of these institutions. He cannot appoint the diplomats, generals and Cabinet advisers that he wants without those institutions’ consent.

And, as current debates about the nuclear agreement with Iran show, the president cannot enter foreign negotiations without the intervention of other parts of the U.S. government. Confronted with similar controversies over his treaty with Great Britain (Jay’s Treaty) and the efforts to undermine his policies by a popular French visitor (Edmond-Charles Genêt), Washington was only the first president to lament the domestic encroachments on his ability to lead as the public expected. Every one of his successors has voiced the same frustration.

In addition to the institutional limitations on power, presidents confront ever-greater difficulties in managing their time. Washington often felt overextended by his daily responsibilities, and that problem has multiplied exponentially across two centuries.

It is, in fact, hard for people who have never been president to understand the inhuman demands of the modern office. Because of the breadth of responsibilities and the ever-faster movement of international developments, the contemporary president is in perpetual crisis mode, constantly running to catch up with events. Reading the president’s daily schedule, one sees how with each successive administration the issues widen, the meetings multiply and the daily decisions increase. On any given day, a president will have to respond to a mass shooting in an American city, the failure of a major financial firm, an attack on American forces abroad, a credible terrorist warning, and Russian and Chinese bullying of neighbors, as well as ceremonial duties with a visiting foreign leader and a national championship sports team.

The pace of the presidency is punishing, and the leader becomes necessarily defensive. Instead of storing up their energy to make winning shots, presidents find themselves hitting frequent soft returns to keep the ball in play and avoid unforced errors. President Barack Obama has admitted as much, revealing the pressure to respond without risk to numerous challenges and the anxiety about doing too much of anything. Obama is hardly alone. Even President Ronald Reagan, who tried to focus his attention on a few big issues, found himself pulled into budget disputes, hostage crises and an international AIDS epidemic that defined much of his time in office. The imperial appearance of the modern president is defied by the fragmented experience he has as a global policymaker.

There is little time to analyze, think or prioritize in the contemporary presidency; most energy is devoted to minimizing damage and preventing things from getting worse. The dirty secret of the office is that the president and his closest advisers spend more hours reacting to the behavior of distant, small and destructive actors (currently North Korea and the Islamic State, for example), rather than pursuing their chosen agenda. The problem is more than mission creep; it is really mission abandonment for crisis management instead.

With a country as large and complex as the United States, and international responsibilities that extend to every region of the globe, it is simply impossible for the leader of the free world to master the overwhelming number of conflicts that reach him for comment and reaction. If he makes sense of some of them, thanks to his advisers, it is difficult for the president to understand their connections to one another, and the consequences of American action in one area for other regions. Every day — almost every hour — presidents are asked to make decisions that will affect millions of lives in distant places they barely comprehend, with severely constrained information and profound uncertainty about consequences.

Presidents also know that their every move will be carefully scrutinized and savagely criticized by friends and foes. This was true for the partisan press of Washington’s time, and it has become overwhelming with the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, social media and contemporary news-entertainment, where manufacturing political scandals is part of the regular reporting diet. Presidents know they will face greater condemnation if they reveal the hesitation, uncertainty and real limits that surround everything they do. They overcompensate by exaggerating their confidence, their commitment and the promised consequences of their actions.

Even though recent presidents have sent American soldiers abroad with high degrees of uncertainty about the threat and the prospect of success, they have promised to “eliminate tyranny as we know it” and build democracies on incredibly short deadlines. Similarly, even though they recognize how little direct control they have over the economy, the environment, the education and the health of the population, they’ve repeatedly predicted big achievements in each of these areas. Rising expectations about presidential power encourage unrealistic policy promises, followed by popular disappointment and then assumptions about the weakness of the man in office.

The real problem, however, is that policies are oversold before they underperform. Presidential rhetoric creates commitments that ultimately undermine presidential effectiveness. This was equally true for George W. Bush’s global war on terror and Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — both of which became prisoners to a caricatured definition of success, despite some real but largely ignored accomplishments.

Our poor understanding of the presidency and our distorted political rhetoric have become insidious. In the current electoral cycle, there are already more than 20 people running for office, but not a single one of them will say anything about the structural challenges discussed above, even though these challenges — not ideology or personality — will define effectiveness in office.

In the speeches citizens hear and the advertisements they watch, candidates talk about the outcomes they want to achieve — from robust economic growth to impregnable national security — without any serious discussion about how the presidency can make those outcomes a reality. Few reporters ask about implementation. Most candidates do not really know how they will generate the promised results, beyond repetition of their sound bites.

We elect on aspiration, not on effectiveness. Once in office, newly elected presidents are overwhelmed by all the constraints discussed above and they fall into the same defensive, reactive and fragmented pattern of their predecessors. The pattern tightens with every successive administration because the constraints increase along with the unpreparedness of the candidates.

More than anything, this explains why it has been at least 50 years, since President Lyndon Johnson, that a new president had a successful first year in office. Since then, nearly every president has seen his agenda stymied and his popularity decline, despite all the misleading talk of presidential honeymoons. In reality, new presidents begin a quick and often irreversible slide into mediocrity from the moment of inauguration, when the onrush begins. We can expect the same in 2017.

So how do we escape what we might call the dilemmas of the modern presidency?

There are no easy solutions because the constraints on the effectiveness of our leaders are embedded in the historical evolution of the office, our expectations, the international environment and the global mediascape. The presidency has always been defined by much more than the person in office, and that will continue to be the case.

There are, perhaps, three historical lessons for thinking about creating a more effective presidency in our time.

1. Less is more

The powerful image of the office, and growing domestic and international demands, have encouraged a continual multiplication of issues for presidents to address. We cannot make the issues go away, but we might start by asking presidents to address fewer, not more, of them. Instead of trying to respond to every need at home and abroad, it might be time for presidents to say many of these legitimate demands are not their job. Of course, voters will have to accept that answer. Rather than an unrealistic sound bite about how to solve every problem, citizens should look for candidates to articulate priorities. Which regions, issues, threats and opportunities will the next president address with a carefully considered and focused plan? Which issues will he or she give less attention, despite daily pressures otherwise? We need to accept that presidents cannot do all that we ask, and we should give them incentives to do a few things well that we value most. We should judge them accordingly.

2. Efficacy over ideology

Our current debates reward ideology over everything else. Candidates try to figure out what voters want to hear and then they affirm that they are most committed to those positions. In fact, history shows that presidents are never able to govern by ideology. They lead through compromise, negotiation and constant bargaining at home and abroad. Presidents need to have goals, but more important is the ability of the leader to get things done. That is the true creative part of the presidency — motivating, cajoling, threatening, begging and even bribing. The best presidents have been the ones who were most savvy about undercutting resistance and building pathways for change through complex institutions. For all the flash and glamor, it is the hard work of pushing policies through clogged pipelines that makes for a successful presidency. We need to educate citizens better about this reality, and we need to choose leaders who are ready to do the difficult plumbing.

3. Big goals require humble means

The United States needs big goals at home and abroad to focus the attention of citizens and allocate resources. One need not believe that we are the “indispensable nation” to agree that we have a special role to play as the most prosperous democracy on the planet. Since Washington’s presidency, Americans have looked to leaders for guidance in articulating how we can make the world a better place. The wisdom of history indicates that presidents must pursue big goals with the humility that admits how difficult their promises will be to achieve. Presidents must speak frankly to the American people about the difficulties. They must promote half-measures, compromises and trade-offs that are necessary, rather than the false image of rapid success through moral purity and overwhelming force. They must encourage patience and the acceptance of small steps on a long road to change. Too often, our policy lurches from one goal to another over unrealistic expectations, rather than the realistic recognition that anything worth achieving takes time, adaptation and a constant reconsideration of our efforts. The best presidents — Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — always reconsidered how they could achieve their stated goals, and they adjusted accordingly. Consistent presidents are not the best presidents.

We are still more than a year away from the election of the 45th president of the United States. We are already saturated with the horse race among different contenders. Although entertaining, we are focusing on the wrong question. The central question for this election is not who should be president, but what kind of presidency do we want, and how will we get it? By focusing almost exclusively on personality and ideology, we neglect how the office defines the leader.

More than two centuries since our founders created the presidency, it is time for us to think deeply about a new set of changes to the powers, responsibilities and expectations of that office. We have a lot to learn from presidential history, if only we will treat it as more than series of biographies. Our presidency is a unique, evolving institution, and we must examine it in relation to our society and the world around us.

 

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 6 September 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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