Posts Tagged ‘Washington’


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.

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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.