Is The American Presidency An Impossible Job?

In his new book, “The Impossible Presidency,” scholar Jeremi Suri argues that our expectations of the Chief Executive cannot be met, setting the president up for failure.

By Rhonda FanningSeptember 19, 2017 1:57 pm

Put aside the current occupant of the White House for a moment and ask yourself: when was the last time a president delivered on all that was promised? If you can’t remember, then ask: is this the fault of the candidate?  

A thought-provoking new book by Jeremi Suri, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, explores the history of those who have held America’s highest office. In “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office,” Suri suggests that whoever wins the election will have a tough time ‘winning’ once he or she becomes president.

In his book, Suri makes the point that by design, the office of the presidency wasn’t built to do everything voters expect it to, setting modern-day presidents up to fail.

“One of the important points of departure is to recognize that the founders didn’t know what the office would be. There had been nothing like it before,” Suri says.

It was Jefferson, Suri writes, who first imagined that the office could grow and ultimately become too unwieldy.

“American power, he feared, would diminish American virtue. And that’s part of what’s happened,” Suri says.

It’s time for voters to do a reality check on what we expect of our presidents, Suri argues. America’s outsized role on the world stage and the way we remember past presidents has led to unrealistic expectations of today’s commanders-in-chief.

Suri points to the entitlement that U.S. citizens feel now when it comes to our president, or what we now believe the president owes us, as a root cause of our chronic dissatisfaction with the occupants of the Oval Office.

“The founders expected, and our early generations of leaders, expected that citizens would be part of the collective sacrifice required for their leaders to succeed,” Suri says. “But unfortunately we’ve told the history of some of the presidents I describe — Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt – as if they are doing all the work. And as a consequence later generations of Americans think they can get the benefits from leaders like that, without having to make the sacrifice that the citizens who lived under Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln made for them.”

The Civil War is an example. According to Suri, Lincoln is often credited with successfully leading the country through the Civil War, thus making the U.S. stronger and more unified. Rarely, he says, do we credit citizens with that success.

Or Theodore Roosevelt, who can be at least partially credited with raising America’s position on the world stage and popularizing globalism.

“Globalization is not new,” Suri says. “What it means today is different than what it meant 100 years ago, but I would say that Theodore Roosevelt was as global a thinker as anyone today. He had a vision of the world and the US being a part of it.”

This way of thinking has led to an age in which America inevitably plays a huge part in world affairs, but it doesn’t mean anything unless we come away with a win.

“I think that really is a post-World War II phenomenon,” Suri says. “We did so well in World War II, at great cost, and then we were able to make such an imprint on the world after WWII that we’ve come to expect that we can do that in all eras.”

Suri argues that presidents need to be more selective in order to avoid this ego trap. Rather than focusing on isolation versus engagement or big versus small government, presidents should pay more attention to where government should be involved in all of these spheres.

Suri points to Franklin Roosevelt’s as the last successful American presidency.

“He’s the hero of my book but also a tragic figure,” he says. “But what he’s taken on as an agenda is undoable for anyone after him, because that agenda continues to grow. The way I put it, is he’s the last president who can build the office up and still barely, barely manage to keep it working.”

Over time, the office of the president has grown to be responsible for so many areas of governance, all of which have become more complex, that the presidency has become a juggling act that actually weakens the president by making the president beholden to smaller actors, Suri argues.

The solution? Create a position for another elected official who could take over some of these duties.

“Imagine if someone like [House] Speaker Paul Ryan were chosen not by the extreme members of the Republican caucus, but…by the nation as a whole. Could be even from a different party than the president,” Suri says.

In fact, the founding fathers expected the vice president to be elected separately, according to Suri but the presidency and vice presidency were merged together in the 19th century. A return to a system with two high-ranking elected officials, he suggests, may help reset the office of the presidency, setting future presidents up for success.


Written by Kate Groetzinger.