Official White House photo
Americans expect their president to be equal parts CEO, diplomat-in-chief, commander of armed forces, party leader and motivational figure. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the presidency itself, suggests historian Jeremi Suri.
In its extremes of power and responsibility, the US presidency is probably 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. They command the most powerful military in the world, but they repeatedly confront the frustrating limits of what they can achieve by force. They’re revered around the globe, but they have trouble translating their celebrity into tangible influence. Most of all, presidents are elected by the people, but they spend most of their time in office cut off from any unscripted contact with ordinary citizens. Their power is awesome and pathetic at the same time. Even the most capable modern presidents are doomed to fail, and limiting the failure and achieving some good along the way has become the best we can expect.
While presidents were heroes in the past, they became targets of derision by the second half of the twentieth century. (Watch Jeremi Suri’s TEDxSMU Talk: “How We Can Use History to Build a Better World.”) Presidents who oversold their policies and underperformed contributed to this dynamic, as did public impatience and misunderstanding about how policy is made. A healthy skepticism about leaders is valuable for democracy, but cynicism and anger tear the necessary fabric for experimentation and cooperation. Policy requires many hands working together, not cutting each other’s throats.
Attacks on the very possibility of governance will never make our country great. Instead, we should use the election of 2016 to discuss and redesign the presidency.
It was near-impossible to lead as president in 2016, and a lot of voters recognized that. Many of them chose to elect an anti-leader, Donald Trump, whose main qualification was that he had never served in public office and had no desire to act like a traditional public servant. “Blowing up the system” was perhaps an understandable reaction — millions of people who chose this path believed government had failed.
Disruption, however, is not a long-term strategy. Attacks on the very possibility of governance will never make our country great, and the fall of the presidency imperils any future rise of the US. Instead, we should use the election of 2016 to inspire renewed discussion of the office. America needs a new burst of institutional reform — not just endless debate about who should be president — and there’s an opportunity to redesign it for a new world.
1. Establish boundaries to the office.
The presidency has grown too large in its responsibilities and its expectations, well beyond the imaginings of the founders. What are the vital national interests presidents should address, and what are the powers they should have in those areas? The list of issues should be limited and the powers should match national needs.
The first century-and-a-half of American presidents led a very different nation. They had fewer temptations and clearer priorities. Their ambitions were focused on a small number of issues: union, opportunity, growth and security. They were largely idealistic in their aspirations and realistic in their pursuit of compromise and balance — rather than total victory and dominance, both of which were inconceivable in their world.
Presidents are expected to be ever-ready for crises yet strategically minded; connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force.
No recent American president has been prepared for the overwhelming power of the office and the responsibilities and challenges that define it. They’re expected to be ever-ready for crises yet strategically minded; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. On any given day, they might have to respond to a mass shooting in a US 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 championship sports team.
A serious redesign of the presidency to make its form follow vital functions will empower leaders to achieve more in areas that matter most (including national security) and avoid issues that should not come to their office (especially divisive cultural debates). Clearer definitions of presidential responsibilities will also make it easier for voters to identify the appropriate qualifications and choose candidates poised for success. Asking the president to do less can indeed allow him or her to accomplish more.
2. Return presidents to the role of educator-in-chief.
Presidential achievements have always depended on effective communications with various groups: members of Congress, foreign leaders, and especially American voters. The founders based their thinking about democracy on the assumption that leaders, including the president, could engage in a reasoned, fact-based discussion with the public about the nature of American policy. They recognized the many challenges that came with a large population of widely varying backgrounds and interests, but they believed that the best proposals would win broad support in what they envisioned as a rigorous marketplace of ideas. The 2016 election revealed how various factors — including social media — have shattered the nation’s ability to conduct a reasoned public discussion of policy. Instead of serious, fact-based debate, an increasingly segmented media landscape encourages citizens to receive information that confirms their biases, often without attention to contrary facts or perspectives.
Strengthening public institutions that offer serious, fact-based information, and creating new ones, would give presidents a better chance at building consensus.
Restoring facts to public discussion requires the president to return to a public educational role, something Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts took very seriously. Escaping partisanship and “false news” demands consistent efforts to explain policy through diverse channels. This involves support for institutions that offer serious, fact-based information to a broader public; these institutions include schools and universities, public information services (especially public radio and television) and other public service organizations (the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office, for example). More sources of serious research and dissemination are needed, and they should receive public funding to maintain their rigor and independence, rejecting the moneyed and partisan interests behind many private think tanks. Strengthening these public institutions, and creating new ones, would give presidents a better chance at building consensus. It would also give citizens a firmer foundation for determining who is best suited to represent their interests in office.
In the smaller America of the 18th and 19th century, it was easier for well-informed citizens to assess facts. While presidents debated difficult issues from trade and taxes to slavery, expansion and war, they generally agreed on the basic facts with their adversaries. Today, restoring agreement on basic facts will not end conflict, but it will allow presidents to focus on the issues that really matter for the future prosperity and safety of the nation.
3. Create another executive role.
Another pathway for reform might involve a more institutionalized division of responsibilities between a president and perhaps a prime minister — both of whom would be elected by the American people at different intervals. The founders wanted a single executive, but they never anticipated the range of challenges and responsibilities the modern office holder would confront. A single executive for an enterprise as gargantuan and labyrinthine as the United States has become anachronistic.
Dividing domestic and international authorities, as the French political system does, or dividing policy leadership from head of state responsibilities, as in the German constitution, would allow presidents more of a chance to lead. A separation of roles would open some time in the president’s crowded calendar for deeper deliberation around key issues. A division of roles would also create more opportunities to focus and innovate, rather than just react.
The growth of the United States, and the challenges of a more tightly connected world, demand more of every president. The contemporary president is running ever faster on a policy treadmill, where just keeping up is a form of progress, and changing direction is likely to cause a damaging fall. Instead of imagining something better, presidents just keep running. History has brought us to this difficult moment when we must recognize that our inherited assumptions and practices no longer serve the nation (and the world) as well as they once did.
This excerpt was adapted from the new book The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office by Jeremi Suri. Copyright © 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.