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.
For Suri, the presidency was in trouble well before Trump. Its demise began at the height of its power, with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and in the first half of the book, titled “Rise,” Suri follows the expansion of the office from those deliberately restrained powers of the founders’ era to the expansive executive powers, in both the domestic and international spheres, claimed by Roosevelt.
The buildup of power was incremental but irreversible, Suri notes. The first notable change took place when the powerful image of the “revered grandfather,” Washington, gave way to that of the “warrior father,” Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s support for the ethnic cleansing of Indians and his defense of slavery took the shackles off presidential power. “He defined the United States as a presidential democracy, not a democracy with a presidency,” Suri writes. Moreover, Jackson’s persistent anti-elitism “greatly increased the power of the American executive.”
Still, Suri maintains, “Jackson’s populist presidency” had an upside: It “made Lincoln’s war presidency possible. Rooting presidential power in the people, rather than the Constitution alone,” Jackson “freed the executive from many institutional restraints.” But there is also a darker side to the image of Lincoln as a liberator and lawful leader. Describing Lincoln as a “poet at war,” Suri portrays him as the ultimate manipulator of the public mind-set, deftly using language to create a narrative in which death and destruction paraded as virtue and liberty. Lincoln, Suri writes, “was the first president to define an extended military conflict as a ‘new birth of freedom.’” He “turned a terrible civil war into a narrative of national redemption.”
In this manner, like many war presidents who followed him, Lincoln fused “freedom and war” and transformed “pervasive death into national rebirth.” And all the while, he did so by expanding presidential power. “Congress did not announce the freedom of the slaves, nor did the judiciary,” Suri observes. “The president did.”
As with Lincoln, Suri would like us to temper any vestigial regard for Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments (even after the critical revisionism of late) with caveats about the negative imprint that his successes left on the office itself. Turning the image of the president into one of a “pushy, self-confident, and impatient reformer,” Roosevelt “greatly expanded the democratic reach” of the office “as he also set near impossible expectations for his successors.”
In Suri’s view, Roosevelt—well-meaning in his “civilizing ambition” despite his “undemocratic qualities,” his elitism and his militarism—made great and commendable strides forward. Roosevelt turned the “executive into the reformer-in-chief” and “increased the speed, range, and impact of the nation’s executive as a catalyst for domestic and international change.” From his first day as president, Suri argues, Roosevelt sought “to make the national executive the dominant actor in all parts of American life.” In the domestic sphere, he created public-welfare programs through the exercise of presidential initiative, not in collaboration with Congress. In foreign affairs, he was “the first commander-in-chief to think globally.” In short, Theodore Roosevelt created “a vision for the office” that persists to this day.
But it wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt came on the scene, Suri argues, that the contradictions embedded in the methods that Jackson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt innovated came to the surface. On the one hand, there are the transformative accomplishments of FDR’s responses to the Depression and a crumbling world order. He was, as Suri puts it, “problem-solver-in-chief,” and he took the presidency to new levels of influence. On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt’s transformation of the office—despite the great accomplishments, both foreign and domestic, those efforts yielded—left the presidency itself in dire straits. “Such a president,” Suri writes, acknowledging the historian Charles Beard’s fierce criticism of FDR, “looked more and more like a dictator than the dispassionate and distant figure embodied by Washington.” In the end, Roosevelt helped to institutionalize the impossible features of a presidency that must be simultaneously visionary while managing a crushing set of bureaucratic demands.
The problem of “too much responsibility” becomes the lens through which Suri judges the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama in the second half of his book, which he has titled “Fall.” Skipping over Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower with barely a nod, Suri describes Kennedy as “the first of many presidents to feel lost in his own power,” since by the time he took office, there were “too many demands on the executive.” Similarly with Johnson, we witness a president who “was trying to run the world from the Oval Office, as presidential responsibilities seemed to demand, but the world was running him. He was going in too many directions at once.”
In each case, Suri sees the president’s strengths turned into weaknesses due to the excessive demands that Roosevelt created for the office. Kennedy’s “ambition to solve all problems” eventually “entrapped him in hyper-action, and ultimately, policy overload.” For Johnson, the expansive nature of presidential power “brought all of his ambitions crashing down, fast and hard.” For both men, “their talent, energy, and idealism” became “debilitating” in the face of the constant crises posed by the Cold War, the war in Vietnam, and the era’s social upheaval.
The same is true of Reagan, the president for whom Suri seems to reserve his greatest respect. Suri sees “two Reagan presidencies.” Initially, Reagan simplified the many demands of the office, and in so doing “returned the presidency to mission over management.” But over time, he succumbed to other priorities of the day. Suri applauds Reagan’s “flexibility,” most notably in his shift in attitude toward Soviet leaders and his efforts to help end the Cold War. And when Reagan failed—as he did with the economy, the AIDS crisis, the Iran-contra scandal, and much else—Suri chalks it up to his failure to extend this flexibility even further.
Again, for Suri, it is not so much Reagan who is to blame, but the impossible presidential system put in place by Roosevelt. “By Reagan’s time, it was no longer possible for the president to closely follow all the domestic and international programs under his purview,” and “even if he had tried, Reagan could not have maintained the same direct control over the larger, more complex, and more international government bureaucracy that he led.” Reagan’s failures in both the domestic and international spheres are proof, in Suri’s view, that the “post-Roosevelt presidents found it difficult to match their power with their purposes. The federal government was too massive and too fragmented…. American power appeared transformative, [but] its efficacy was marginal, at best.”
Exceptionally telling are Suri’s omissions, which allow him to skip over the presidents whom most people would include in a list of those who affected the institutional power of the presidency, almost always in a negative way—namely Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Nixon’s abuses sent the country into a tailspin for a generation and led to a lingering distrust regarding the president’s exercise of power for his own gain, while Bush helped to permanently rearrange the country’s separation-of-powers doctrine. Bush, in particular, belongs among those who succeeded in transforming the presidency and the range of its powers—but for the worse. As commander in chief, he waged war at home and abroad in ways that put the president and his national-security platform ahead of the courts and Congress.
Suri’s all-too-brief discussion of Obama also reveals his biases: He views Obama’s presidency as largely a failure, particularly in relation to foreign policy, because in the face of innumerable challenges calling for the use of presidential power, Obama refused to exercise it, let alone to expand those powers, proving himself “ineffectual, weak, and largely reactive.” Like Kennedy and Johnson, Obama found that despite his ambitions, he struggled to master the challenges, especially those that emerged in the field of foreign policy.
With his focus on the overwhelming demands of the modern presidency, Suri is building upon the seminal work of Richard Neustadt in his 1960 book Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. Neustadt’s notion was that, for the modern president, the line between leader and clerk was blurred: “Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything.” But while Suri focuses on what the proliferating demands of the White House have meant for the president’s agenda, Neustadt is interested in how effectively presidents exert their influence—over Congress, public opinion, and other countries. For Neustadt, the main criterion for assessing American presidents is overall leadership, not particular policy goals. Suri, by contrast, is more concerned with the efficiencies and effectiveness of presidential power than with the lawful, moral, and artful exercise of it while in office. Suri is, therefore, interested neither in Nixon’s abuses of power nor in Bush’s abuses of the law, but rather in how the imperial presidency has debilitated presidential rule.
Suri barely mentions Donald Trump, a candidate at the time of his writing, whom he labels an “anti-leader”; but, reading between the lines, Trump was an accident waiting to happen. His predecessors had collectively created and sustained a monster of an institution with overwhelming power and too many responsibilities for any one individual. As a result, the public has come to believe, as Suri puts it, that the “government had failed, and they wanted to bring the president down. They no longer believed the office could produce a Washington, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, or even a Reagan. And they were probably correct.” Trump’s election was the culmination of this frustration over the paralysis created by executive overload.
For Suri, this means the presidency has reached its end as we know it. Having exceeded its original mandate, it cannot be sustained: “A single executive,” he counsels, “is just no longer practical.” What we need, Suri believes, is a “division of responsibilities between a president and perhaps a prime minister.” By accepting the presidency’s defeat, however, Suri misses out on the moral of his own story—namely, that in many ways Obama displayed the combination of restraint and simplicity of style that Suri applauds in George Washington, and that the criticisms of Obama were less about his abusive exercise of power than his intentional determination to keep things in balance.
Titling his epilogue “New Beginning,” Suri wonders whether the American government has outlived its founding framework and whether the time has come to rethink executive power. In the context of the Trump presidency, these larger existential questions may indeed ring true, but one hopes they are also a far-too-early shot across the bow.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify the timeframe during which The Impossible Presidency was written. It was written largely, but not entirely, before the 2016 election.