Furthermore, even less attention is paid to those situations in which presidents encounter situations of political adversity that make all efforts at governing difficult, even if any incumbent is more likely to experience tough times rather than grand achievements. What is known about the difficulties presidents face and what can be learnt by examining situations of presidential adversity?
How do presidents respond to such situations, and how do adverse circumstances both limit incumbents and stimulate them to be innovative or creative in their actions? By examining case studies of tough times for the president, this book broadens the understanding of presidential power and both the limits and opportunities chief executives face as they govern from the Oval Office.
It points to a new view of the sources of presidential power. It also shows how presidents cope with the kinds of tough circumstances in which chief executives find themselves all too often. The case studies show American chief executives facing some of the toughest political situations of their presidencies, and illuminates important episodes in modern political history.
The authors show Gerald Ford trying to govern without any of the traditional sources of political capital, Bill Clinton recovering from two near-death political experiences the loss of Congress in , then the Lewinsky scandal , and the unraveling of the George W. Bush presidency. The authors also use these insights to help build an alternative understanding of presidential power. They sketch an understanding of power as leverage that takes into account the resources that a president is able to apply in a particular situation, weighed against the risks and obstacles that threaten to undermine presidential goals and the opportunities that help to motivate the president.
The cameras were called in and the theme music was cued, but several of his executive actions merely instructed agencies to look at problems and issue reports. I alone can PowerPoint it! Others, such as the travel ban, the exclusion of transgender people from the military, and tariffs on steel and aluminum, were poorly vetted and incited massive backlashes. We all know what this desire to execute looks like in our own lives. The president is the jumpy man who presses the elevator button a second time, then a third time—with his umbrella.
It feels good. It looks like action. But the elevator does not move faster. President Obama stands by the bedside of wounded soldiers he sent into battle and in the ruins left by natural disasters.
He counsels his daughter from a seat on the backyard swing while on television oil oozes from the Deepwater Horizon spill. He sits, leans, and paces through endless meetings. The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet. 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.
When a president travels, he has his own doctor, security, exercise equipment, and water. It all gets moved around on his airplanes. If the Secret Service thinks the bathroom in a foreign country might cause the president to slip, agents will lay down protective strips to give him traction when he gets out of the tub.
Grover Cleveland used to answer his own front door. Now presidents touch door handles only in their private quarters. Their lives are babyproofed. At the same time, the American president is constantly subjected to the harshest scrutiny from outside his bubble. This is a long-standing tradition.
It was the cantaloupe. The president is the biggest celebrity in the world. Eyes are always watching, ready to imbue a grimace with meaning. Everyone waves—and everyone expects a wave in return. If the president is close enough, people expect a selfie. Photographers can capture a note about needing a bathroom break that he jots in a meeting, and someone is always at a keyboard ready to make a cultural moment out of a thought that escapes his subconscious.
Obama told an aide that he had a recurring dream. In it, he was enjoying a peaceful walk. He was alone and undisturbed. Suddenly, he was noticed. The dream became a nightmare, and he awoke. While emoting at all the appropriate times in all the appropriate ways, a president must also wear masks to hide his intentions—from world leaders, political adversaries, and allies alike. This allows him room to negotiate. But a man who wears masks must do a lot of work to keep them from slipping. Can one person handle all this? In , former President Herbert Hoover completed a review—his second—of executive-branch efficiency and suggested the addition of an administrative vice president to help the overloaded president.
The existing vice president was apparently already too busy. It was the fifth heart attack or stroke to hit a current or former president since the Wilson administration ended, in This caused the columnist Walter Lippmann to wonder whether the job was too much for one man to bear. Since then, the weight of the job has grown even heavier. The Souza photograph that marks the day Obama describes as the hardest of his presidency shows him standing with one of the 26 families he comforted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.
That day, when a mother broke down, the president handed her a tissue. They must comfort the nation in the shadow of tragedy. Woe unto the president who selects the wrong sermon for the occasion. He may soon be called on to console their families, too. An aide to George W. Bush says that when the president was deciding whether to send more troops into Iraq in , at a time when the public and members of his own administration wanted the U. Truman said the decision to go to war in Korea had been the hardest decision of his presidency. Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.
Truman kept the letter in his desk drawer long after his term ended, a testament to the weight that remained on him even after he left the Oval Office. Learning to compartmentalize is a necessity for presidents. During the final phase of planning the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of , Obama chaired the National Security Council on five occasions.
Those five days tell the story of just how quickly a president must switch between his public and private duties. The events that took place immediately before and after those secret bin Laden meetings included: an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.
On April 27, the day before Obama chaired his last National Security Council meeting on the bin Laden raid, his White House released his long-form birth certificate to answer persistent questions about his birthplace raised by the man who would be his successor. In the two days before the raid itself, Obama flew to Alabama to visit tornado victims and to Florida to visit with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was recuperating from a gunshot wound. In the joke-writing process, he had removed a quip about bin Laden. His aides were given no hint of why.
Every night feels like Tuesday night.
At times, an opportunity to get a quick win has to be put off for a later, bigger victory. Focusing on short-term success might please the pundits, but it keeps an administration from doing the hard, obscure, boring work needed to address looming national problems that will be too big to tackle once they become emergencies—the shrinking middle class, the changing climate, the rising health-care costs straining the federal budget. Even the most above-it-all president is continuously tempted to privilege the small over the big and the now over the future.
The current president gives in to such temptations. It may be an efficiency—what a relief to give vent to your every moment of pique. But Trump is serving with historically low approval ratings, and even his supporters do not like his constant sniping and complaining about the merest slight. Successful presidents learn to keep their powder dry, even when doing so might make them seem weak.
A president has the power to determine who lives and who dies—sometimes by the thousands—yet he is also frequently powerless, which led the political theorist Hannah Arendt to define the president of the United States as at once the strongest and the weakest of all national leaders. A president must be willing to endure that paradox.
THE IDEAL OF FREEDOM AND EQUALITY
On September 30, , President George H. The government was set to run out of money that day, a familiar story to contemporary ears. But what those men said would seem less familiar. The Republican president praised the Democratic leaders, and they praised him right back. Congressional leaders of both parties praised each other. The president and assembled lawmakers were announcing the Budget Summit Agreement, a mix of spending reductions and tax increases meant to tame deficits.
The agreement capped five months of intense wrangling, which had ended in a sprint of negotiations. The outcome was one the Framers would have approved of: Lawmakers of strong opinions had compromised rather than resorting to open conflict. The results were imperfect, but preferable to inaction. At least, that was one way to see it. Gingrich headed back to the Hill, where conservatives waited to greet him as a rebel hero. After this, it was taken as truth that no Republican politician could survive disappointing the conservative core. The split screen that day encapsulated the dilemma for modern presidents: Work with the other side and be called a traitor, or refuse to work with them and get nothing done.
Days after the Rose Garden ceremony, the deal announced there collapsed. Liberal Democrats voted against their leaders because they wanted more government spending. Conservative Republicans voted against their leaders because they opposed tax increases and wanted more spending cuts. Republicans running for reelection in needed the base to win. In the 27 years since the announcement of the doomed Budget Summit Agreement, the parties have become only more partisan.
Particularly in the Republican Party, primary challenges await lawmakers who dare enter into a bipartisan compromise. The purity ministry is proctored by talk-radio hosts, well-funded outside organizations, and countless social-media warriors. The growth in partisanship means that when it comes to the basic business of government, the president and Congress are in constant turmoil. Shutdowns and federal-budget stalemates are now regular occurrences. Congress has not passed a spending bill on time in 20 years.
When presidents do work with Congress, the achievements are partisan. Obama signed health-care reform flanked only by Democrats. Trump celebrated his tax-cut bill with only Republicans. Bipartisan ceremonies at the White House have become rarer, low-stakes affairs, or the last of a kind. Republicans are no longer such boosters of the idea. When the relationship between Congress and the White House breaks down, pundits like to invoke Lyndon Johnson. Through sheer force of will, they suggest, a president can get the machine going again, spurring Congress into action. But Johnson is not the model.
His party also had a large majority in both houses. The idea that presidents can break through gridlock if they just try hard enough nevertheless persists. Pundits regularly advised him to just sit down and have a drink with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the way Truman shared bourbons with congressional leaders. The call for presidents to sit down with the leaders of the opposing party is a vestige of a time when presidents and lawmakers were less connected to their party and when the parties were more ideologically and geographically heterogenous than they are today.
They could appeal to ad hoc coalitions in Congress, which formed around beliefs on specific issues. As Senate minority leader, Johnson, a Democrat, helped Eisenhower defeat conservative Republicans who were pushing the Bricker Amendment, which would have limited presidential power in foreign affairs.
As president, Johnson relied on the Republican Everett Dirksen to get civil-rights legislation passed over the opposition of conservative Democrats. The electoral map once encouraged compromise and cross-party coalitions. Those senators had constituents who liked the president, even though he belonged to the other party, which gave those senators room to make deals with him. About 80 percent of the senators from the states Obama won were of his party. The same is true of Trump. The Pew Research Center has been studying partisan positions since , testing views on fundamental political issues—whether regulations do more harm than good, whether black Americans face systemic racism, whether immigrants are a burden, and whether corporations make reasonable profits.
In , the members of the two major parties were only 15 percentage points apart, on average.
Now they are an average of 36 points apart. That partisan gap is much larger than the differences between the opinions of men and women, of black and white Americans, and of other divisions in society.
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The partisan gap in how people view presidents is also as wide as it has ever been. On average, during his two terms Eisenhower enjoyed the approval of 49 percent of Democrats.
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Obama had the support of 14 percent of Republicans over the course of his presidency. Just 8 percent of Democrats approved of Trump last summer. Bush chief of staff. They want action. To repair the modern presidency, politicians, the public, and the press need to change their expectations about the office and focus on what is realistic. The president is not a superhero. He is human, fallible, capable of only so much. So what do we want him to do—and how can we help him do it? The volume is filled with organizational charts, prioritization matrices, and tables that match jobs with responsibilities.
Six hundred people were involved in planning for a Romney transition by the end of his campaign, participating in exercises in which they practiced moving ideas and legislation through the federal system. When people talk about the benefits of having a businessman in the White House, this example of careful attention is no doubt what they expect.
The businessman who succeeded where the former Massachusetts governor failed did not exactly bring the same rigor to the transition process. The transition experienced all the typical flaws—infighting, skepticism toward those with expertise from the previous administration, wasted work—and a few new ones for good measure.
Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service has devoted his career to trying to make the federal government operate more efficiently. He pushed Congress to pass the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act, which put some structure in place to help a new president prepare. And he suggests that Congress should seek to formalize a transition process like the one Romney intended to follow.
Voters and the media could do their part by dispensing with the idea that any candidate who thinks about the nuts and bolts of the presidency before the first Tuesday in November is prematurely measuring the Oval Office drapes. We should do the opposite: evaluate candidates based on their commitment to the transition, using it as a sign of seriousness. How they think about the transition offers a view into how they would approach the job: Can they focus on an important long-term task while engaged in the day-to-day urgency of the campaign?
Can they put the right people in place? Since the election, public attention has understandably focused on fake news, Russian interference, and how to keep elections from being destabilized again. But susceptibility to foreign manipulation is hardly the only flaw in our electoral system. The American public and press also need to reconcile the gap between the office as it is debated during campaigns and its actual demands. We need to do a better job of using the campaign to test for the qualities that will serve a president in office: management talent, governing effectiveness, and temperament.
Bush communications director. Reporters and pundits gravitate toward easy narratives, and candidates, parties, special-interest groups, and financial kingmakers all benefit from crude, predictable fights over values and identity. A small percentage of party members currently take part in the presidential nominating process. Most of those who do are ideologically extreme, more interested in litmus tests than testing for experience and character. If people with fewer fixed opinions joined in, they might select candidates who demonstrate the preparedness and open-mindedness to govern.
This is not a new tension in American politics. It is only when we get into politics that we are satisfied with the common man. Today, candidates who have no familiarity with Washington enjoy a distinct advantage; those who do are seen as denizens of the swamp. This bias ensures that the president has none of the skills and relationships honed by years of service that might give him a fighting chance of breaking through the partisan gridlock.
Voters—particularly Republican ones—have a tendency to romanticize the can-do spirit of the corporate CEO. Gautam Mukunda, a Harvard political scientist and professor of organizational behavior, has studied how the electorate might better seek out the qualities of command in presidential candidates.
He points out that businesses rely on a filtering system that tries to let through only those leadership candidates who have the basic attributes necessary for the job. Previous success does not predict future success. In fact, previous achievements may impede progress as president.
But the presidency is unlike any previous job. The sooner presidents realize that they are going to have to master new skills to run an effective White House, the better. Every president has to learn this, Leavitt says. Because rhetoric has been the coin of the realm during the campaign, new presidents fall into the trap of thinking they can talk their way around any problem. If you want to move fast, you first need to move slow.
This is especially hard medicine to take, because presidents are so flushed with new power. On Christmas morning, no one wants to wait for Mom and Dad to get up to open presents. Things will be different when I get to town , they told their adoring crowds. But there are no easy calls as president. The system for presidential decision making has to be methodical, because presidential decisions are uniquely difficult.
So you wind up dealing with probabilities.
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You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. In many instances, a president makes a decision without the certainty that comes from having done all the work leading up to it. To make these decisions a president needs to have space for reflection. Embrace the bubble. Presidents have to ignore the reviews and the constant chatter; there is too much of it, and too much of it is uninformed. To guard against being out of touch, meanwhile, a president has to designate someone to tell him the truth and then believe that person when he delivers unwelcome news.
Trust your staff. Given the weight of every decision, and the fact that even good presidents can make bad ones, the system that delivers a set of options to the Resolute Desk has to be as solid as possible. Using his experience as an advertising executive, he drew up a careful system to staff the presidency. An ironic bit of wisdom, given his fate and that of the Nixon administration, but no less valid for that ignominy. A president can of course overrule his staff, or change his mind.
But there needs to be a process, and a baseline of consistency. To someone supremely confident in their ability to instinctively know the answer to every question, this could seem overly bureaucratic. However, when the process is not allowed to operate, the consequence is a lot of crashes.
The crashes may not come immediately, but they are inevitable, and when they happen, a system for effective operation cannot be put in place retroactively. This is perhaps the greatest looming challenge for the Trump administration, which is stress-testing everything we know about the orderly operation of a White House. Empower your Cabinet. In the modern executive branch, that means giving Cabinet secretaries some leash. And they are the ones who are going to execute it under my supervision.
To allow this kind of delegation to take place, though, Americans will have to give up their conception of where the buck stops. If a Cabinet officer makes a bad decision, the president should fix it and the system should adapt. The media, for their part, will have to cover Cabinet officials in a substantive way and not just as a source of palace intrigue.
Mitch Daniels argues that the overload of the job can be solved only by radically paring it back. This might require a break between the functional role of the job defending the nation and building consensus for important legislation, the places where the presidential brain and only the presidential brain can be applied and the ceremonial part of the job visiting disaster sites, welcoming NCAA champions.
The latter category might be impossible to lose altogether, but could probably be outsourced to the vice president. A future president might also redefine the role of the first spouse, tasking her—or him—with more of the visiting and hosting. We have big problems. You hired me to do a different job. Then again, this may be another way in which Trump, however accidentally, may have given the country an opportunity to address a problem it has long ignored. Perhaps this might embolden the next president to give an uncommon inaugural address:.
Cynics in the media would roll their eyes. The opposing party would accuse the president of shirking her duties. But the American people might appreciate the candor, the humility, and the pledge to focus on the work that matters. Another of the jobs the president could step back from is his hands-on legislative role. Then it goes to the Senate, and the bill gets more moderate, at which point the president is accused of not having principles. The president could reserve his political currency until the end of the process, when a lot of the sticky issues have been thought through.
He would no longer engage as one of many grubby negotiators, but with a preserved stature as the voice of the nation. The presidency never leaves the president. Even when he is on the golf course, he has the work coursing through his head. Moments of escape are healthy. Presidents have been denied the right to vacations, often by aspirants for their job.
Once again, Eisenhower knew what was right. Nixon, by contrast, quizzed his chief of staff about how little sleep he could get and still function. No one wants to follow the Nixon model on health management. The stress of the job and his demons drove him to drink and wander the White House grounds and the National Mall, dialing friends and adversaries late at night. Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate.
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It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat. Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.
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