Jeremi Suri addresses LAWAC members about the challenges of the US presidency at a LAWAC breakfast.
The US presidency is the most powerful office in the world but it no longer works as it was intended by the Founding Fathers, according to Jeremi Suri. “The office is an institution that has produced great leaders, but it has not been updated: we are driving the greatest Model T when we don’t need a Model T anymore,” Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas, told a LAWAC Global Café Breakfast on December 6. Based on a historical overview of the most celebrated of the past 44 presidents, Suri argued that the original intention to have a chief executive who was impartial and stood above politics to bring a larger vision to the job has faltered. In recent decades, presidents have become overwhelmed by a multitude of urgent matters that continually bombard the White House, leaving them little time to think strategically about how they might transform the nation. “The increase in power and responsibilities ultimately becomes debilitating,” said Suri. “Scale matters, and virtues that once empowered presidents become vices.”
The president is given certain powers by the Constitution – commander-in-chief of the military, chief diplomat and treaty negotiator, enforcer of national laws with the power to veto and pardon. But very little is said about how the president should exercise those powers. “The presidency was not pulled off the shelf by the Founders,” said Suri. “It was created in the doing,” initially by George Washington. The first president saw his role as a unifying one, kept the role of the presidency small and in his farewell address he expressly warned against the president joining a political party. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president and the first not to come from an elite upbringing, established a precedent for the presidency to speak for the common man, said Suri. His image has been tarnished by his treatment of slaves and Native Americans, but at the same time he did empower many of the hardscrabble white settlers who were struggling to make a living on the frontier.
Lincoln made the presidency into a true national executive position, and he outlined a shared narrative of America with his speeches. “Lincoln was so compelling – he only had two years of education and yet he mastered the English language and the art of leadership, and turned the presidency into an engine for economic development,” said Suri. Theodore Roosevelt, “our most progressive president,” according to Suri, lived in a world of ideas and applied those ideas to policy. “He created the Navy, the Panama Canal, the national park system – he even introduced helmets to football.” He turned the White House into a salon for thinkers and used the presidency to match “capitalist development with the best ideas of the time.” And if that meant standing up to business titans with monopolistic powers, Roosevelt was not one to turn away from a fight.
While Theodore Roosevelt lived the “strenuous life”, Franklin D. Roosevelt had almost the opposite experience. Although he also came from a privileged background like his fifth cousin, FDR suffered from polio and “spent six and a half years in Warm Springs, Georgia living with some of the most destitute people in the world – he took that insight into his presidency and became ‘empathizer in chief’.” FDR had to deal with the Great Depression and the war against Japan and Germany, and he introduced the idea of using broadcasting to stay in touch with everyone in the country, through his famous fireside chats. “No one who lived through the FDR years was not touched by him – he reached people through radio.” At the end of the war, said Suri, “FDR had become president of the world.”
But after the Second World War, Suri argues, presidents could no longer live up to the high bar set by some of their predecessors, partly because the US had assumed so many international obligations that there was always some crisis somewhere that needed the president’s urgent attention, reducing the amount of time available to work on more long-sighted strategies. In Suri’s new book, The Impossible Presidency, he has a copy of John F Kennedy’s schedule for the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, where between meetings on Cuba he has to see the King of Libya, the US Ambassador to France, a panel on intellectual disabilities and the chairman of the Printing Company of America. “He barely had time to make it into the Cuba meetings!” said Suri. Presidents Obama and Clinton had similar problems according to Suri, “They both thought they could do everything and they didn’t see any limits.” But by taking on so many tasks, they watered down their effectiveness.
The one exception in recent years was the first term of Ronald Reagan. “By comparison, Reagan was a remarkably humble man, and he chose to focus on a few things like confronting the Evil Empire and fixing the US economy. He saw he had to compromise with people he disagreed with.” This worked well until his second term when he had to deal with multiple foreign policy crises and the Iran Contra scandal which overwhelmed his last years in office.
Regarding our current president, Suri said, “Many of the 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump believe the system is broken, and they were angry about it. But blowing up the presidency leaves all the problems in place.” Instead, Suri said, “we need to reform the office from within.” He said that Hillary Clinton “was not running to reform the office – she was running as the candidate of the old system.” And he pointed out that “old people are holding on too long – we had three 70 year-olds running for president – Trump, Hillary and Bernie Sanders.”
So how does the US reform the presidency? Suri said the key is to encourage younger people to get involved in politics. “We currently have the second oldest Congress ever. And the oldest was the one right before the current one.” Suri’s suggestions for reform also include simplifying the organization of the presidency and possibly splitting it into a two-pronged position to have a president and a prime minister similar to France. He advocated for breaking down the isolation of the office: “We have set up the presidency to be entirely out of touch with the country – presidents don’t meet ordinary Americans outside of highly scripted and controlled situations.”