John Dickerson isn’t the first or last to wonder in print whether the US presidency has outgrown a single occupant.
In the cover article for the latest edition of The Atlantic, Dickerson contrasts today’s outsized view of the US presidency with the James Polk era, when the wife of the 11th President of the United States insisted bands played “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room – so people would recognize him.
Dickerson, who is now part of the CBS Morning News team, says the problems President Donald Trump seems ill-equipped to deal with in the Oval Office may be a reflection of the growing difficulty of one man – or one woman – to represent the best interests of 327 million citizens while managing 2 million employees in the federal government (not counting US military personnel).
Ivana Trump, one of the ex-wives of President Trump, confirms Dickerson’s thesis. She says Trump loves his personal freedom and feels trapped by all the demands on the President, including reading mounds of material about virtually every subject and corner of the world. Trump didn’t even know his namesake son was being divorced until his ex-wife told him during one of their monthly calls.
The demands on modern Presidents have led others to question the human capacity of a single person to fill the job. Jeremi Suri’s “The Impossible Presidency” traces how the presidency has advanced from George Washington, who was assumed above pedestrian politics, to today when Presidents must be commander-in-chief, world leader and a political wunderkind. The presidency was a radical idea hatched by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to be an “impartial, fair, forward-looking and unifying” force to guide the nation as a “model of virtuous behavior.” If anyone like that exists today, he or she probably couldn’t get elected as dog catcher, let alone President of the United States.
The talents required for a President are sprawling. They must be the war chief, preside over national sorrow and divine how to manage the economy, pretty much full-time on television – and now Twitter. Every misstep is magnified. Nothing is off-limits. Every problem sooner or later finds itself under the porte-cochére of the White House.
It is an interesting historical footnote that Washington never slept a night in the White House, John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House while it still was under construction. His impressions were less than superlative. Many modern presidents have referred to the White House as a prison. Trump compared it to a third-rate hotel. It would seem the digs don’t detonate the sparks of ambition to become President.
Which raises the question, why do people run for President? They tell supporters they want to make a difference, but they must realize the odds are stacked against them, especially when a President from one party serves with a Congress controlled by the other party. The founding fathers saw the wisdom of separation of powers, but they probably didn’t anticipate as much friction in the wheels of government as we witness today.
Dickerson lays much of the blame for dysfunction at the collective hands of the presidency. Since Andrew Jackson, American Presidents have become more powerful, more visible and more outgunned. They command an army that increasingly has become a covert operation. They appear on television in the Oval Office and make promises, which they often are unable to keep. They oversee a sprawling administration they can hardly contemplate, let alone manage. For the record, Jackson was an activist President trying to shrink the federal government, especially the National Bank.
If the problem with the presidency is obvious, solutions are opaque. Some have called for the United States to adopt a system closer to Britain’s parliamentary system, with a prime minister chosen by the controlling party. Others have emphasized the importance of bringing a competent team to Washington, DC to manage the levers of power. Still others have said government should be run more like a business.
The presidency is unlikely to morph into a prime minister that must seek approval, symbolic or otherwise, from the sovereign. Presidential teams are increasingly hard to assemble and keep in place for even a single term. The skills it takes to succeed in business may not be synonymous with what it takes to lead the nation. A CEO can give orders; a President has to find delicate balances on issues such as nuclear weapons that never reach the desk of a business executive.
In his book, Suri said Franklin Roosevelt was able in relative leisure to conduct war after Pearl Harbor. “Twenty years later, even as John F. Kennedy was confronting nuclear Armageddon in the form of the Cuban missile crisis, he was struggling to find time to deliberate with his closest advisers. His calendar was packed. The problem: a massive expansion of presidential power and responsibility.”
Dickerson concurs. He recalls how in 1938 some 100 demonstrators dressed up as Paul Revere and carried signs saying American didn’t want a dictator, a response to the first major reorganization of the executive branch since 1787. The reorganization was the result of a study commissioned by Roosevelt who basically said, “I need help.”
Since then, the world of Presidents has gotten a lot more intense. Nowadays, Presidents are held responsible for federal agents unable to provide emergency housing for hurricane victims. Maybe Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” sign needs some editing.
If skeptics need evidence, Dickerson said they should scan the 300 photos of Barack Obama taken by White House photographer Pete Souza that shows the President who hosts endless meetings, comforts wounded soldiers, negotiates with world leaders and high-fives kids in Halloween costumes.
“The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet,” Dickerson writes. “Meanwhile, the President lives in a most peculiar unreality. His picture is on almost every wall of his workplace. The other walls contain paintings of the men who achieved greatness in his job, as well as those who muddled through. It’s like taking a test with your competition’s scores posted around you.”
His best advice for a future successful President: Empower his or her Cabinet. Study up to hit the road running. Concentrate on a few well-chosen goals. Force Congress to do its job. Claim some personal down time. Those steps won’t make the presidency less challenging, but it might help a future officeholder do the job in ways that transcend partisanship.