An Unapologetic Look into the Presidential Paradox

By Madeleine Simon

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Author and history professor, Jeremi Suri, speaks at Politics and Prose Bookstore about the presidency’s growing power. (photo by Madeleine Simon)

WASHINGTON – Jeremi Suri humbly walked up to the wooden podium, adjusted his dark blue suit, and smiled at the audience here at Politics and Prose Bookstore. Suri opened with a message from his son.

“I wanted to tell you something my 12-year-old wanted me to say tonight,” Suri said. “He said we should not lose hope. And I want to start with that as my theme.”

And so Suri, a history professor, began his blunt yet optimistic critique of the American presidency. To Suri, the office is a paradox, one which needs to be understood to fully explain the executive branch’s challenges and disappointments.

“The paradox for me is how presidents can be so powerful and how the power of the office has increased from generation to generation, but yet the effectiveness has not increased with the increased in power,” Suri said.

This paradox and how it came to be is the topic of Suri’s latest book, “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”

“I wrote this book not because I wanted to trash the presidency. Not at all,” Suri said. “I wrote this book because I’m a deep believer that leadership matters. I’m a deep believer in the presidency.”

Suri’s book cuts through the sea of presidential biographies and politicians’ autobiographies, and tells the broader history of America’s presidency.

“I think as much as we want to debate Trump, Clinton etc., even more important is understanding the office itself and talking about how to reform it,” Suri said. “And if we don’t do that it doesn’t matter who comes along, we’re going to be stuck where we are.”

According to Suri, to really understand the presidency we need to go beyond the 2016 election. In Suri’s book, President Franklin Roosevelt is both the hero of the story and ground zero for bloating the executive branch.

“He uses the presidency to…heal the country, to create within this capitalist system the basis for people to live comfortably, to have a floor under them, and for them to be included,” Suri said.

But while a powerful presidency worked for Roosevelt, it left future presidents with shoes too large to fill and the American people with expectations too high to meet.

“The office becomes so powerful, the responsibilities become so great, that we become a society post-[1945] that is more and more reactive, more and more tactical, and more and more about mediocrity across the board,” Suri said.  

After Roosevelt, gone were the days when presidents had time to go door-to-door in rural Pennsylvania—which is what George Washington did—or had a White House staff of three people, which was how Roosevelt started his presidency.

Now, as Suri puts it, we have presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson who sent combat forces to Vietnam on the same day as the Selma march, which also happened to be the same day of a scandal in his administration, a Latin American crisis, and the day his daughter got a new boyfriend.

“Kennedy’s and Johnson’s calendars look like the calendars of CEOs,” Suri said. “They look like our calendars: busier, accomplishing less. And it’s the power that’s pulled them in this direction.”

Not only are presidents busier and have more responsibilities, but the adage of today’s globalization only stretches the office thinner.

“When you are a global power, with your tentacles everywhere…it becomes impossible for an executive structured our way to effectively lead,” Suri said. “Clinton and Obama, two enormously talented people, spent most of their presidency trying to get problems off their desk. And the problems keep coming.”

To Suri, this presidential-overreach paradox is what lead to America’s frustration with the executive branch and the election of President Trump.

But, neither a Washington outsider nor any new president can fix these problems. To improve our leadership, we must reform it completely, Suri said.

“We elected someone who is, I think, woefully unqualified for this because Americans have grown so frustrated with the office that they think they need to find someone who’s completely outside who’s going to save us all,” Suri said. “Even if we had the most qualified person ever, they’d still fall flat on their face…because of the structural challenges.”

Suri has three pathways for reinventing the presidency. Much of the onus is not, surprisingly, on the presidents themselves, but on the American people.

First, we need to start asking the right questions as citizens, not what “is most beneficial to our little corner of the world,” Suri said.

“The fact that we spent two months in the state of Texas debating bathrooms is absolutely ridiculous when you think about the problems in our society,” Suri said. “We need to demand attention to the issues that matter.”

Second, we need to tackle fake news by creating and refunding institutions that are incentivized to provide facts, Suri said.

And third, which as Suri points out is the least likely option, we need to divide the office similar to how other major democracies are structured around the world. According to Suri, the office is too large for one person.

With all that is wrong with the presidency, Suri still has not lost hope for reform. From his own life experience, he still believes in America’s leadership.

“I’m the child of immigrants. And the United States has always been for my family not just a place of opportunity, but a sacred place,” Suri said. “A place that was different from others. We were a society that looked for leaders who actually made us all better. That was the hope. It wasn’t the reality in all cases, certainly. But that was the hope.”

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