Posts Tagged ‘strategy’


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: (26 January 2016).


Leadership, like all historical phenomena, moves in cycles. Periods of boldness (think of the 1940s, the 1980s, and the early 2000s) are followed by years of very limited horizons (think of the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s.) We are living today in a time of terrible self-constraint. Our leaders face difficult economic, political and military challenges, but they are no worse than what their predecessors confronted. Remember the Great Depression, the Second World War, even the oil shocks and Vietnam War of the early 1970s? The problem today is that our leaders remain stuck in the low cycle of self-limitation. They just cannot manage to think big and turn our crises into opportunities.

What does this mean? If the history of the last century proves anything, it is that careful management of crises and political “muddling through” can only get you so far. The great leaders who made serious contributions to human betterment took calculated, bold risks in exactly the kinds of circumstances we face today. Franklin Roosevelt did not try to “manage” the Great Depression as Herbert Hoover had done; he took risks to transform the American (and world) economy. Winston Churchill did not try to “manage” British decline in the face of German Fascism; he rallied his people to rebuild their military and their empire. Ronald Reagan did not try to “manage” the Cold War; to the consternation of his advisors, he imagined and pursued a new form for superpower relations. Great challenges require grand visions, with a tolerance for some risk-taking.

Our global problems have become worse in the last year because our leaders at all levels of all societies lack vision, imagination, and the courage for calculated risk-taking. Republicans and Democrats in the United States cannot transcend their tired, counterproductive rhetoric about tax-cutting and entitlement protection. European Union leaders cannot escape the band-aid efforts to patch together a failing currency that must be re-made with more effective institutions. United Nations diplomats, especially those from Russia and China, continue to defend Iranian sovereignty as they watch that country pursue what everyone recognizes as a nuclear weapons program that will produce a regional war if it is not stopped soon.

We do not need to focus on politics alone. Take our “great” universities. Has anyone met a bold educational leader recently. The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, following recent scandals at the University of Miami and Ohio State, shows that the presidents of the world’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions of higher education are asleep at the wheel. Universities are hemorrhaging money from academics, but they continue to pour resources into glitzy athletic programs that overpay coaches, under-educate students, and frequently break the law. Boosters at the University of Miami hired prostitutes for players. A coach at Penn State abused young boys. The story continues but university leaders do nothing systematic. They meekly apologize and move on with more of the same.

It is not too late for bold leaders to emerge. It is not too late for new directions. It is not too late to proclaim that the evident failures in our inherited institutions and policies mean that we must try something serious and something new. That is the discussion Americans should have in the 2012 presidential election. That is the discussion Europeans should have as they contend with new national governments and a failing currency. That is the discussion the international community should have about nuclear non-proliferation, inequality, and education for a new century.

I am a historian so I remain confident that the wheel of time will turn again, producing bold (probably young) new leaders. That is why I like the “Occupy” movement, which is now spreading from urban downtowns to college campuses. The students in sleeping bags and tents do not have the answers, but they are asking the right questions. Why should we accept limited horizons? Why should we support failed institutions and unimaginative leaders? Can’t we do better?

I hope our most ambitious and talented citizens our listening. Now is their time. Now is their opportunity. A time of bold change is upon us.


This blog post originally appeared at

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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.