The Presidency Is Broken

John Dickerson explains how America’s biggest job is fundamentally flawed—and why it’s not up to any one individual to fix it.

The Oval Office, shown in 1993
The Oval Office, shown in 1993 (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

America’s biggest job is hard. But is it impossible?

That’s the question posed by John Dickerson, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a co-host on CBS This Morning, both in the pages of this magazine and in a recent interview with The Atlantic’s editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg. The presidency, Dickerson explains, has ballooned into something more complex than the Constitution’s framers ever envisioned: Modern presidents must coordinate with far more Cabinet members, govern in a highly partisan environment, deal with around-the-clock criticism in a real-time media environment, and still summon the emotional bandwidth to lead the country through tragedy.

Given the tremendous scope of the job, Trump’s admission that the job is harder than he expected is “a common presidential revelation,” Dickerson says. “They all come to this because they campaign as superheroes.” And therein lies another potential clue as to why the job has become so difficult: Americans’ expectations of presidents are often incongruous with the constraints of the office, and promises are much more easily made on the campaign trail than kept once in the White House.

That’s why, Dickerson explains, the Framers never intended presidents to campaign in the first place: “To campaign was to be seen as unfit for the office, because it meant you were grubbing for votes,” he says. “You were appealing to people and selling your thoughts to people instead of doing what a president should do, which is use their calm, clear reason.”

The distortion of the role means that the ability  to “fix” the office may not lie with individual presidents. “We want candidates to feel embarrassment when they say, ‘I’m going to change it all tomorrow,’ when President Trump said, ‘I alone can fix it,’” Dickerson says. “People should snicker not at him, but at the idea that any president can alone fix it.” Instead, he says, the real power to change the office of the presidency lies with the American people.

Watch below for Dickerson’s full conversation with Goldberg, in which he explains the difference between a skilled campaign and presidential skills, points out which promises Trump has successfully kept since taking office, and more.