Jeremi Suri’s The Impossible Presidency grounds contemporary debates about the presidency in a historical understanding of the office — and shows why its recent occupants don’t measure up.
Shortly after murdering King Duncan in his bed, Shakespeare’s Macbeth declares, “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!’” This line, taken from the Bard’s consummate study of power, served as the opening epigraph of Clinton Rossiter’s 1956 work, The American Presidency. The line lends itself to multiple interpretations. In one reading of Macbeth, the protagonist, guilty of debasing himself in his headlong pursuit of the crown, will forever be haunted by Duncan’s ghost. In another version, Macbeth, suddenly realizing the maelstrom he has just plunged himself into, understands that governing has no end and permits no rest. According to the historian Jeremi Suri, author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, this is a good depiction, minus the killing, of the modern presidency.
Today, it is hard to escape Donald Trump, and the profound questions his presidency has raised over America’s future. Focusing too intently on the current moment, however, obscures how we arrived at this particular juncture. Drawing back and charting the evolution of the presidency, Suri’s survey grounds contemporary political debates about the enablers and constraints on presidential power in a historical understanding of the office and its most notable occupants.
As the subtitle of his book suggests, the story of the American presidency is one of rise and fall, and Suri organizes the book around these those two opposed concepts. The book is not comprehensive but impressionistic, with the first half of the book covering the presidencies of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But following FDR, who “broke the mold,” according to Suri, the office devolved into a perpetual state of crisis management. Examining the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Clinton and Obama, Suri concludes that the post-war presidency has failed. Bound to overpromise and underperform, overwhelmed by time-management challenges and institutional constraints, and predisposed to have the immediate crowd out the important, the modern President is incapable of focusing on the things that matter.
Before reaching such a conclusion, Suri looks back at the history of the office and its occupants. In this telling, no matter how profound the differences in background and temperament of its occupants, and no matter how disjunctive the circumstances they found themselves navigating, the early American Presidents represented natural evolutions of the office and were the pivotal figures of its upward trajectory.
George Washington set precedents with everything he did: bringing dignity to the office, attempting to create balance between the government’s three branches, working to ensure national unity where he could, and restraining public passions where he could not. Andrew Jackson built on the Washingtonian model, but altered it to serve his views that the President was the sole representative of the American people. According to Jackson, the President needed to fight against the other branches of government, fill the bureaucracy with sympathetic officials, and bend the state’s purposes to align with his partisan agenda. Abraham Lincoln used this model of a super-empowered President to fundamentally remake American society, as he re-conceptualized the role of Commander-in-Chief and invented the role of communicator-in-chief through his inspired rhetoric. Theodore Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to curb the excesses of the Industrial Revolution by regulating business and promoting social and labor reforms. And it was his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reimagined the social contract, transformed the White House into the driver of the legislative agenda, successfully steered the country through World War II, and presided over the birth of a geopolitically dominant United States.
But starting with John F. Kennedy, and accelerating through the present, Suri finds the occupants of the Oval Office increasingly distracted by events, whip-sawed by their schedules, and unable to find time for strategic thinking. This daily grind precluded what Barack Obama described as “the most important thing you need” as President: “big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”
Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 found the presidency a weak institution and, compared to Congress, “almost powerless.” Tocqueville was of course observing the office in the midst of its transition under Jackson into a substantially different, and more powerful, office. He was also the first of several sharp-eyed foreign observers to chart the changing fortunes of the presidency.
Most prominent of these were two English perspectives on what some would refer to as America’s elected kings. Written in the era of what Woodrow Wilson called “congressional government,” James Bryce’s 1888 The American Commonwealth shared Tocqueville’s dismal view of the Executive Branch. Bryce titled his most memorable chapter “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents,” and concluded that the American system worked just fine without great men. While clearly unfair to Lincoln, Bryce was also writing in an earlier era, and before either of the Roosevelts had reshaped the office into the centerpiece of American political life. London School of Economics Professor Harold Laski’s The American Presidency: An Interpretation, published in 1940, reflects this change, arguing that in the 20thCentury, the American people had grown accustomed “to think of the presidency as the essential keystone of the political arch.” This question—about how much the President matters to the American government, to American society, and to America’s place in the world—has been a constant thread from the Constitutional Convention’s debates to the disruptions of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Suri’s history stands in a long tradition of eminent scholarship on America’s highest office. Clinton Rossiter’s short and sweeping The American Presidency, Richard Neustadt’s influential Presidential Power and the Modern Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s well-known The Imperial Presidency, and most recently Aaron David Miller’s The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President all covered the office and the institution.
Suri’s organization of the book and selections make sense, although not all of his omissions do. Woodrow Wilson, who transformed the goals of American foreign policy, and Harry Truman, who presided over the creation of the modern foreign policy and military establishments of the U.S. government, are both conspicuous in their absence. Regardless, such decisions are well within the scope of authorial choice. What emerges is an impressionistic overview of both American history and the evolution of the office itself. Suri’s work brims with historical insights, even if by necessity and design his account is highly selective.
His opening chapter, “Origins,” is an especially powerful synthesis of existing scholarship that discusses the provenance of the concept of the executive, traces out its intellectual evolution, and demonstrates its inherent tensions. Scarred by their lived experience under an abusive king and a chaotic period following the fall of that king, the Founders sought to create an office that simultaneously restrained and empowered a leader. The result, Suri notes, was twofold: an office full of contradictions, and one that derived its “enduring strength…from its original lack of definition.”1 This was because the Constitution merely sketched the roles and functions of the presidency, leaving open the interpretation of its powers.
Because Suri finds the modern presidency so inherently unsatisfying, if not downright impossible, it should come as no surprise that much of the tone of the book’s second half is one of lament. Especially when judged against the dignity of earlier Presidents, who attempted to tame the country’s passions, soothe internal divisions and channel them into productive ends, it is difficult to arrive at another conclusion today. But, as Suri points out, no matter how anomalous Trump’s presidency might appear, Trump did not materialize out of thin air. His presidency, Suri argues, marked a natural reaction to the increasing inability of Presidents to govern. The result was the election of “an anti-leader.”2 The book concludes with a plea for institutional reform of the office. These range from the eminently sensible, if currently implausible, recommendation of using the Oval Office to engage the public in “a reasoned, fact-based discussion,” to the more fanciful proposal to split institutional responsibilities between a President and “perhaps a prime minister.”3
Given the turbulence of the Trump Presidency, Suri raises an intriguing, and challenging, question. At several points, he asks if American democracy is capable of direction absent a strong national leader who can provide a sense of unity, order, and common purpose. Should America be understood as a presidential democracy, or a democracy that happens to have a President at its head? Implicit in this is one of the oldest and most vexing questions of democratic governance.
Granting that there are profound differences between ancient Athens and contemporary America, the eminent Greek historian Donald Kagan made a similar point in his biography of Pericles, Athens’ lead statesmen of the 6thcentury B.C.E. In Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, Kagan asked if democracy could succeed only with energetic and skilled leadership at its helm and if, in its absence, a democracy would face a best case scenario of drift in calm seas, and a more probable outcome of shipwreck in foul weather. Such an outcome would be tragic, but not wholly surprising to the ancient Greeks. To contemporary Americans long accustomed to living outside of tragedy’s shadow, it would be both.
The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office
Basic Books, 2017, 368pp.