Since the presidential election of 2016, one can almost hear the sound of fingers rifling through the file cabinets of the past, desperate to find clues to guide us through an ever-darkening present. Some latch on to the worst periods of earlier eras, everything from Nazi Germany to Watergate to the Iraq War. Others look to moments of transformation and reform, all in the hopes of countering the curtailment of democracy and its agenda of rights for everyone.
In an effort to weigh in on the election of Donald Trump, biographers of past presidents have searched their own note cards for comparisons and explanations—only to come up short. Michael Beschloss, Joseph Ellis, William Leuchtenburg, and Doris Kearns Goodwin have all recently insisted that Trump is “unique” among presidents. For Garry Wills, Trump’s sins have surpassed even those of Nixon, making him “that rarest of things, a true nonpareil.” Ron Chernow has identified the singularity in, among other things, Trump’s lack of kindness and compassion. Even those who have written about past eras of demagoguery, from Reconstruction to the McCarthy years, differentiate Trump’s excesses from those of his violent, rabble-rousing predecessors. And many worry about how the imperial nature of the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt has set the stage today for expansive privilege as well as power.
Written largely before Trump’s election, Jeremi Suri’s thought-provoking examination of presidential power and its pitfalls, The Impossible Presidency, arrives at a strange moment. Setting out to examine the growing accumulation of power inside the Oval Office, Suri praises those presidents, like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, who expanded those powers, and criticizes those, like Barack Obama, who failed to do so. Suri’s goal is to review the long history of the White House and its occupants in order to correct “our poor understanding of the presidency” and its evolution to the present day. This flawed understanding, he believes, “has prevented us from addressing the structural impediments” to a president’s “effectiveness in office.” So, too, it may have blinded us to what now appears the inevitable rise to power of an individual who lacked the experience and the expertise that the office now demands. Suri argues that the growth of the presidency’s overwhelming responsibilities has rendered the office untenable. In contrast to the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the dean of historians of the American presidency, Suri does not see self-correction as inevitable. Instead, he sees the presidency as having irrevocably outgrown its mandate. “The impossible presidency,” Suri writes, “produced truly an impossible president.”
Selecting 10 presidencies out of the 45 to date, Suri zooms in on the so-called threshold decisions that, to his mind, incrementally transformed the office from the days of George Washington and his personal modesty to the era of “ambitious climbers” like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. For Suri, Washington was “always dignified in demeanor” and “understood the power that came from restraint, remoteness, and an ‘elegant simplicity in style’” in his dealings with friends and foes alike. Yet even the first president encountered escalating encroachments on his time and talents, a reality that has continued to expand until the present day, when presidents are plagued by the reality of “too many people to please and too many issues to address.” By the time Clinton and Obama were in office, these ever-expanding encroachments had rendered Washington’s simplicity of style and management of power impossible. Distracting, frustrating, and at times debilitating demands upon the president have replaced restraint, simplicity, and the artfully managed balance of powers.