[Revised] 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 opened his talk here at Politics and Prose Bookstore 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 at the University of Texas at Austin, began his blunt yet optimistic critique of the American presidency. To Suri, the office is a paradox that needs to be understood.

“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 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.”

Suri looks beyond the 2016 election to find answers as to how to fix the presidency. In Suri’s book, President Franklin Roosevelt is both the hero of the story and the reason the office has gotten so big.

“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.

Suri alluded to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which expanded the role of the executive branch to resolve issues from the Great Depression. But while a powerful presidency worked for Roosevelt, expectations are now too high for future presidents to fulfill.

“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, presidents no longer 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, and a crisis in Latin American.

“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 today’s globalization adds even more challenges for presidents.

“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 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, the office must be reformed 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.”

These structural challenges include high expectations for the presidency, globalization and overwhelming schedules.

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, citizens need to start asking the right questions of their leaders, 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. One such institution is the Congressional Budget Office, Suri said.

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

With all that’s 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,” Suri said. “And the United States has always been for my family not just a place of opportunity, but a sacred place. 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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