The Presidency Is Too Big to Succeed

The problems of presidential gigantism can’t be solved by finding the right giant—the office is dying from its own undisciplined growth.

Mary Altaffer / AP

The American presidency is broken, and everyone seems to know it. Many of its challenges are, by now, familiar. Presidents are bombarded by a 24-hour news media, populated by journalists looking to expose any appearance of negligence or wrong-doing. The range of crises—foreign and domestic—has expanded as the country has grown. And yes, presidents are more isolated than ever before.

But the country has long had a vicious media culture, a wide array of daily crises, and isolated leaders. Presidents including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all complained about these problems—and to greater or lesser extents, succeeded in spite of them. So why is the contemporary office doomed to failure? The fundamental problem is that the expectations surrounding presidential power have created an unending series of demands, at home and abroad. Presidents are simply trying to do too much in too many places.

In September, I published The Impossible Presidency, a history of the American presidency, and its rise and decline over two centuries. In April, John Dickerson published an article in the Atlantic that recounted many of the same problems with the office. Dickerson and I both agree that even if a paragon of integrity and wisdom replaces the current commander-in-chief, the new president will struggle to unite and lead the country, but we part ways as to why that’s so. Dickerson’s article is entirely focused on developments since the Cold War. The sources of failure, though, have much deeper and earlier origins, which is why the longer history of the presidency is crucial for understanding contemporary problems.

Prior generations of Americans have recognized the limits of the office. The nature of the presidency has evolved through American history, and what it has meant to be president—including popular expectations and daily behaviors—has varied. On three occasions in the past, Americans have had to define the presidency so that it could serve the national needs of their own moment. Today, Americans have inherited a presidency built for another time, and must again reform it.

When George Washington became the nation’s first president, no one really knew what to expect. Disagreement among the Founders had left Article II of the Constitution, on the powers of the presidency, extremely vague. Hamilton wanted something closer to a king; Madison envisioned a creature of the legislature, closer to a prime minister.

Washington understood that his actions, not the Constitution, would define the office. He did not look to become a legislator or a generalissimo for the country. He emphasized a paternalistic role, bringing different factions together and investing in symbolic and material projects for unity. Washington spent much of his presidency traveling to different regions to sell a common American identity, and he supported initiatives like Hamilton’s economic plan, which created a single capital market for borrowing and investment across states that desperately needed money. Washington also advocated for public education, including the creation of what he envisioned as a national university.

The first president created an office that pulled parts of a very divided country together. Despite the emergence of political partisanship, the office continued to play that role after Washington retired. Jackson’s popularity was polarizing for some, but it also encouraged a remarkably broad population of frontier settlers, yeoman farmers, and urban workers to become politically active in support of Old Hickory. And Jackson militantly defended national union in the face of early calls for Southern nullification of federal laws. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States during Jackson’s presidency, he was amazed at the political participation across the country, and the ways that the Jackson presidency encouraged debates, discussions, and associations of citizens for common interests.

Lincoln created the second American presidency when he fought a Civil War that not only ended slavery, but pushed the entire country firmly toward industrial capitalism. Lincoln turned the paternalistic presidency into a developmental office, with huge direct investments in popular land ownership (the Homestead Act of 1862), public higher education (the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862), and federal subsidies for a national railway system, culminating in the completion of the transcontinental railway link in 1869. These were core policies for the new Republican Party that used the presidency to open opportunities for ordinary men who were constrained by state legislatures, especially in the South, dominated by protectors of inherited wealth.

Theodore Roosevelt followed Lincoln’s model, using the presidency to break up monopolies and open new routes for economic expansion. The Panama Canal would do for seaborne shipping what the railroad had done for continental industries, knitting parts of the country closer together to pool resources and make more stuff. Roosevelt sent his enlarged “Great White Fleet” of ships around the world to show his peers that the United States had become a global power, with strong presidential direction—well beyond what Washington or Jackson ever imagined, when the United States was still a small, poor country.

Theodore’s cousin, Franklin, created the third presidency—which is the one we still have. Franklin Roosevelt was a reassuring father figure for a nation suffering through the worst economic decline in its history, and a forceful proponent of industrial development and war to combat threatening rivals. He added a third element: national healing. Roosevelt made the presidency into a provider of aid for those in need. He used a mix of New Deal agencies and war programs to bring food, shelter, jobs, health care, and retirement security to millions of citizens—“freedom from want and freedom from fear.” Roosevelt made the presidency the savior of democracy and capitalism by maximizing the resources of the office to soften the roughest edges of society that encouraged hatred and extremism. The New Deal presidency was a welfare presidency merged with Washington’s unity presidency and Lincoln’s economic-growth presidency.

At the end of the Second World War, Roosevelt’s presidency was the only national leadership model still standing on the global stage. (Stalin remained in power in the Soviet Union, but he was not a chosen model for anyone.) Through the United Nations Charter, the Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, and a flurry of other postwar initiatives, American presidents promised a New Deal for the world—including the defeated, former adversaries, and newly arrived immigrants. Roosevelt’s presidency became the world’s presidency.

The leaders who followed Roosevelt in the White House confronted different pressures, but they all looked back to the New Deal president, even when they rejected specific New Deal programs. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all tried to be like Roosevelt. They wanted to heal the fissures in American society, smooth out the rough edges of an ever-more dynamic economy, and lead the entire world in an American direction. They believed, in words every postwar president voiced, that the White House had to promote the “American way” for all citizens, everywhere. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to vindicate this New Deal-turned-Cold War vision. American presidents had won.

This history of presidential victory is the source of presidential failure today. It is a replay of the histories told by the Greeks and Romans. The power amassed by presidents over 150 years allowed the office to outperform its peers, and serve the nation, but now the scale of power undermines the office and its purposes.

The details recorded in presidential calendars make this graphically clear. Managing enormous power drives presidents away from the issues that matter most, and the values they care most about. They are not leading because they are only reacting. Trying to run the world, presidents jump continuously from issue to issue, in perpetual crisis mode. They are frantically struggling to keep up, even as they acquire new tools (from cybertechnologies to unmanned drones) that expand their reach.

A comparison between Roosevelt and Kennedy, only 20 years apart, shows the transformation of the presidency with its postwar global scale—a leadership challenge that only grows worse with each new administration and multiplying crises and demands. Roosevelt had time to focus, think, and plan. Kennedy could barely keep up. His successors struggle just to stay afloat.

FDR’s daily calendar / Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library
JFK’s daily calendar continued / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

As these and other calendars reprinted in The Impossible Presidency show, contemporary presidents are unable to invest deeply in understanding issues or pursuing core goals. Everything is about putting out fires and kicking big problems—like health care, inequality, the environment, debt, and failed states—down the road. In a reversal of George Washington’s modesty, presidents have become emperors who ride far from the crowds in black SUVs and white Air Force One chariots, striving every day to meet the unending demands on their power.

Donald Trump and his supporters are doing nothing to change this predicament. The same is true for many of Trump’s opponents. They are pretending that they can fix the problems of presidential gigantism by finding the right giant and giving him a few good ideas. That is just more of the same.

Like many other leadership positions in our society, the presidency is set up to fail because it has too much responsibility, too much power, and too many claimants on that power. No single individual, decision, or constitutional provision has produced this state of affairs, and the media is not to blame, either. The presidency has metastasized because it has been successful serving domestic and foreign demands in the recent past, and now everyone wants even more. The office is dying from its own undisciplined growth.

Calls by Dickerson and others for more transition planning between administrations and better selection of advisers are important, but misdirected. Limiting the scale of presidential failures will not produce new successes. The historical development of the office clearly shows that it must become smaller, more focused, and less committed to managing the world. To return to its core goals of uniting the country, promoting economic growth, and insuring the common defense, presidents must concentrate on those issues. That means more executive intervention in some policy areas (perhaps climate change and economic redistribution) but less executive intervention in many other policy areas (including domestic cultural issues, religious debates, and military affairs far from the territory of the United States).

Coming of age in the shadow of current leadership failures, a new generation of citizens instinctively knows what to do. My own students are pragmatic problem-solvers with a preference for focused innovation, not ideological extremism or institutional gigantism. Understanding how we reached this perilous moment offers us the wisdom to build better models of governance for our times, as earlier Americans did in the past. By reducing its scale and refocusing the office on its priorities, we can make the impossible demands of the presidency possible again.