Posts Tagged ‘White House’


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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I am a scholar and a patriot. My fellow academics often criticize me for this. I cannot be “objective” about the United States. As a child (and grandchild) of poor immigrants, I am acutely aware of how this society offered me opportunities that would be unthinkable almost anywhere else. Every new year, including this one, I am grateful for my opportunities as an American citizen. I am grateful to live, work, and raise a family in such a wealthy, stable, and democratic society.

This new year, however, my patriotism is accompanied by a profound sense of shame. I am ashamed at how American citizens (national figures, local leaders, and ordinary citizens) have behaved in 2012. Repeatedly, we have given-in to our base instincts and shown the worst of who we are. This is not entirely new, but it seems so much more extreme in the experience of the last year. We had many opportunities to pull together and remind ourselves of why we love our country. Instead, we chose recrimination, selfishness, and willful stupidity. We are all to blame in varying degrees.

2012 is ending with abundant evidence for this self-criticism. Congressional representatives from both political parties have abandoned negotiations to address the huge holes in our national budget. Instead, they are fighting like spoiled children over the details of a temporary tax measure that when reached, close to the midnight deadline, will only push the pain back until the next budget fight a month later.

The reelected president (whom I voted for) has remained aloof from all of this. He compounded his lack of leadership by giving a narcissistic speech at midday calling for a deal while condemning the Republicans whom he insists must compromise. He then told Congress to solve the problem and returned to hiding.

Why is our president giving empty speeches rather than placing himself at the center of the very negotiations he demands? Why has he left the negotiations to others while he pontificates? My kids are following all of this with me and they easily recognize the childishness of the behavior in Congress and the White House.

The discussion of guns in the last few weeks has been even worse. The senseless shooting of twenty small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut touched every citizen. We all have young children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who attend school. If they cannot be safe in school, where can they be safe? How can we educate our children to live in peace and freedom if they require armed guards, as well as coloring books, in their classrooms?

Instead of opening a difficult but crucial discussion about childhood, education, safety, and freedom our society has fallen immediately into very stale debates about gun ownership. Do guns kill people or protect them? What does the Second Amendment mean? These are important questions, but they are diversions from the real issues.

We are afraid to ask ourselves the tough questions that take us out of our comfortable partisan positions. The issue is not gun ownership or gun control. The fundamental question is how we want to invest in our future, and the children who will determine our future. What kinds of schools? What kinds of measures to assure safety and freedom at schools? A forward-looking society asks these questions, as Americans did a generation ago. A selfish, frightened, and stupid society talks about gun rights when the subject is children.

I am ashamed of America because I am a patriot who knows our society is capable of so much more. I am a historian who has seen the evidence of our nation’s capacity for humanity, self-improvement, and leadership. I am a citizen who has benefited from these extraordinary American capacities.

My resolution this new year is to do everything I can to confront my shame, and remind myself and others that we must do better. For all the structural problems with our gerrymandered districts and moneyed elections, we can still demand better behavior from our elected leaders. For all the incentives to consume and destroy, we can still live more selfless and sustainable lives. For all the ubiquitous examples of pettiness, cowardice, and short-term gratification in Congress and on Main Street, we can make ourselves examples of thoughtful, humane, and forward-looking lives. Leadership begins by looking in the mirror and demanding better of ourselves, each and every one of us.

Only in America could a Hindu-Jewish child of immigrants, like myself, internalize the central insight of the Puritans: We are all sinners. Salvation comes from turning sin into self-improvement. There is no better time to start than with our first acts of a new year.


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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.