Posts Tagged ‘president’

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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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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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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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