The Impossible Presidency

The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office


By Jeremi Suri

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A bold new history of the American presidency, arguing that the successful presidents of the past created unrealistic expectations for every president since JFK, with enormously problematic implications for American politics

In The Impossible Presidency, celebrated historian Jeremi Suri charts the rise and fall of the American presidency, from the limited role envisaged by the Founding Fathers to its current status as the most powerful job in the world. He argues that the presidency is a victim of its own success-the vastness of the job makes it almost impossible to fulfill the expectations placed upon it. As managers of the world’s largest economy and military, contemporary presidents must react to a truly globalized world in a twenty-four-hour news cycle. There is little room left for bold vision.

Suri traces America’s disenchantment with our recent presidents to the inevitable mismatch between presidential promises and the structural limitations of the office. A masterful reassessment of presidential history, this book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand America’s fraught political climate.




The presidency is the most powerful office in the world, but it is set up to fail. And the power is the problem. Beginning as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy, the presidency has grown over two centuries into a towering central command for global decisions about war, economy, and justice. The president can bomb more places, spend more money, and influence more people than any other figure in history. His reach is almost boundless.

Reach does not promote desired results. Each major president has changed the world, but none has changed it as he liked. Often just the opposite, especially in recent times. Today, power elicits demands, at home and abroad, that exceed capabilities. Power also inspires resistance, from jealous friends as much as determined adversaries. Power pulls the president into mounting commitments, exaggerated promises, and widening distractions—"mission creep," in its many infectious forms.

Despite their dominance, modern presidents have rarely achieved what they wanted because they have consistently overcommitted, overpromised, and overreached. They have run in too many directions at once. They have tried to achieve success too fast. They have departed from their priorities. And they have become too preoccupied with managing crises that inevitably appear, rather than leading the country in desired directions.

Extraordinary power has pushed even the most ambitious presidents to become largely reactive—racing to put out the latest fire, rather than focusing on the most important goals. The crises caused by small and distant actors have frequently defined modern presidents. The time and resources spent on crises have diminished resolve and attention to matters with much greater significance for the nation as a whole. Presidents frequently lose control of their agendas because they are too busy deploying their power flagrantly, rather than targeting it selectively.

Unmatched capabilities and ambitions encourage undisciplined decision-making, followed by stubborn efforts to make good on poor choices. These are the "sunk costs" that hang over the heads of powerful leaders determined to make sure nothing sinks, except their own presidencies. As much as they try, presidents cannot redeem the past nor control the present. Their most effective use of power is investing in a limited set of national economic, social, and military priorities. Priorities matter most for successful leaders, but presidents forget them in the ever-denser fog of White House decision-making.

THOMAS JEFFERSON ANTICIPATED THESE CIRCUMSTANCES TWO centuries ago. Although he valued virtue and strength in leaders, Jefferson recognized that these qualities were potential sources of despotism as much as democracy. The virtuous and the strong often try to do too much, and they adopt tyrannical practices in pursuit of purposes that at first seem worthy, but often become corrupted. Machiavelli's prince, who promotes the public good through ruthless policies, was a warning against centralized power run amok.1

Like other founders steeped in the history of empires, Jefferson wanted to insure that the United States remained a republic with restrained, modest, and cautious leaders. He envisioned a president who embodied wisdom above all, a philosopher more than a warrior or a businessman. For Jefferson, the essential qualities of leadership came from the intellect of the man who occupied the office.

The US Constitution divided power to prevent presidential tyranny, but it did not, of course, guarantee the necessary intellect, prudence, or personal restraint of the people in charge. Fragmented authority could be just as misguided as centralized authority, and it could franchise its despotism in multiplying offices and agencies. A powerful democracy ultimately relied upon the wisdom and self-denial of its leaders, not constitutional barriers, according to Jefferson. Democratic leaders had to remain introspective and ascetic as their country grew more dynamic and prosperous.

Writing on the eve of the country's first burst of expansion, Jefferson warned that the nation's leaders may one day "shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble." Restrained use of power and disciplined focus on the national interest were the only antidotes to excess, despotism, and decline. "I hope our wisdom will grow with our power," Jefferson wrote, "and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."2

Jefferson's heirs did not heed his words. Over two centuries the United States strayed from its values more than any elected president could correct, despite repeated public hopes for a savior. Leaders pursued goals—of wealth, influence, and security—that undermined the democracy they aimed to preserve. By the mid-twentieth century the growth of American power made frequent misuse unavoidable, and effective leadership nearly unattainable.3

The widening gap between power and values produced President Donald Trump, elected to promote raw power above all. He is the final fall of the founders' presidency—the antithesis of what they expected for the office. This book is not about Trump's election, but one of its aims is to help us understand the deep historical forces that made it possible. Although President Trump was not inevitable, the rise and fall of America's highest office has a historical logic that explains the current moment, and how we might move forward.

THE DESCENT JEFFERSON FEARED DID NOT HAPPEN OVERNIGHT. THE first century-and-a-half of American presidents led a very different nation. They had fewer temptations and clearer priorities. They were pioneering executives who invented the modern presidency to nurture a stronger, wealthier, and more democratic society. Their ambitions were big, but focused on a small number of issues: union, opportunity, growth, and security. They were idealistic in their aspirations, and realistic in their pursuit of compromise and balance—rather than total victory and dominance, both of which were inconceivable in their world. They made the presidency more powerful, even as they affirmed its limitations.

The most influential early American presidents were wise, strategic, and wary of excess. These qualities contributed to the slow and steady rise of the American presidency as a powerful institution. It affected more lives with each generation, and it drove the expansion of American wealth and influence, decade after decade. The first six chapters of this book recount that history, through the lives of five transformational leaders. None of their successors have surpassed them in their enduring contributions to American prosperity.4

George Washington invented the role of democratic executive. Part king, part elected representative, he was neither and both at the same time. He used his very limited presidential powers to lay the foundations for a national economy, territorial defense, and a common "American" identity among citizens still defined primarily by their states of residence. He was the father figure for a young republic.

A child of the violent American frontier, Andrew Jackson brought the presidency to the people, promising to protect their local needs against the elites in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities who dominated many of the founding national institutions—including Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Bank of the United States. Jackson's populism increased the influence of the president as a fighter (and an Indian killer) who opened opportunities for "ordinary" citizens, but did not interfere in their daily lives. Jackson was the first Democrat—responsive to the least powerful white citizens, and a defender of their rights within the Union.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican. Also born on the frontier, he transformed the Union from a political arrangement among rival regions into a sacred whole defended by a powerful national executive. With little oversight from Congress or the courts, Lincoln used wartime powers to abridge civil liberties, raise the largest army in the world, and free the slaves in the South. He widened the Northern industrial economy across the continent, and he crafted the language to justify its triumph over alternatives. Although he expanded the powers of the president to reconstruct the nation, subsequent events showed that those powers would be limited to wartime, at least for another generation. After the surrender of the Confederacy and Lincoln's assassination, the Union was stronger but still governed by local institutions, especially in the South.

Theodore Roosevelt returned to Lincoln's legacy four decades later. He converted the presidency into a wellspring of progressive reforms at home and aggressive military strength abroad. He personally involved himself, as no president had before, in breaking up monopolies, preserving the wilderness, building a world-class navy, and negotiating peace between foreign powers. He made the president a model of the "strenuous life" that he extolled. Citizens felt Theodore Roosevelt's presence, sometimes more than they wanted. His bullying, however, had its limits. He was a whirlwind of energy, often overextended, but his presidency remained focused on a coherent set of policy reforms. Although he was a know-it-all, his knowledge applied to a still small set of national issues.

Theodore's cousin, Franklin, fused Lincoln's wartime presidency with his namesake's progressivism. He made the president into the national reformer to heal a country suffering through the Great Depression, and he mobilized the nation's enormous resource base to defeat enemies who threatened to enslave much of the world. Lasting an unprecedented twelve years, Roosevelt's presidency created a permanent, and often dominant, executive presence in all corners of society—on farms and factory floors, in schools and national parks, and on radio and other media. Roosevelt was father figure and economic manager and war commander. He was the culmination of one hundred and fifty years of growth in the reach of the presidency, the personal role of the president, and the public expectations surrounding the office and the man in it. Roosevelt's New Deal seeded a sprawling welfare state with global influence. The country never looked back.

Franklin Roosevelt broke the mold. He tore down many of the last limits on executive power as he took over the economy and many parts of the world. He placed the president in charge of countless agencies, programs, and projects in communities across the country. And he spoke directly to citizens through the radio, motivating them to act on his behalf. Roosevelt created a modern presidency that organized a complex society behind his vision. He did more than any other leader in American history.

Roosevelt was the only president to master the responsibilities of the office, responsibilities that he, to a large extent, invented. His successors possessed even greater institutional capabilities, but they experienced deeper disappointments in the exercise of that power. The slow rise of the presidency triggered a rapid decline, and ultimate fall, after 1945. Since the Second World War, presidents have failed, repeatedly, as the office became bloated, undisciplined, and self-defeating. Whether out of necessity or personal ambition, presidents from George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt expanded the powers of the executive, unwittingly creating a presidency too big for its own good.

THE SECOND PART OF THIS BOOK RECOUNTS THE STRUGGLES OF more recent presidents, who have been overwhelmed by abundant capabilities, diffuse interests, and ever-increasing demands. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan responded to a wide variety of national and international pressures, and they fell tragically into a pattern of excess, isolation, and decline—just as Jefferson predicted. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sought to escape this pattern, but the demands of the presidency pulled them into ever more diffuse responsibilities, with even less satisfying results.

Abandoning wisdom for crisis management, the postwar presidents threw their power at problems, rather than thinking about the best uses (and non-uses) of their capabilities for important national needs. The pressure to act at ever greater speed diminished the opportunities for these leaders to think about why, how, and where they acted. The twenty-four-hour news cycle left no quiet time for the introspection Jefferson thought necessary for all democratic leaders.

As a consequence, strategy became a lost art in the White House. Instead of thinking deeply, late twentieth-century presidents proclaimed their virtue, opened their wallets, and flexed their muscles. This approach to the office required less time for rushed leaders. It came most easily for figures with enormous power at their disposal. And it played to the prejudices of their staffs and citizens. Yet as these presidents learned through hard experience, undisciplined power is self-defeating.5

No recent American president has been prepared for the overwhelming power of the office, and the responsibilities and challenges that define it. The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general, or a party leader. The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems. The pace is breathless, even on the quietest days, and the stakes are enormous, even for the smallest decisions. Nearly every waking hour is monumental for the president of the United States. Mere mortals do not live (or survive) in these circumstances.

Despite the crushing intensity, the president is expected to be ever-ready for crises yet strategically minded; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. Although no human being can do all the things expected of the president, each individual elected to this mighty office must claim that he can. Like the power of the Greek gods, the promise of the presidency always exceeds what is possible.

Every modern president has struggled with this gap between promise and possibility. Some came to rely on a growing group of advisors, others sought to centralize authority with a small set of loyalists. Most have done a little of both, relying on their own energy, insight, and instinct to determine which issues require attention at a given moment. It is a grueling and lonely experience. Self-doubt creeps into the minds of even the most confident presidents.

The more powerful the leader, the more isolated he becomes from anything like a normal life. Power induces fealty in friends and self-interested advocacy in acquaintances. Franklin Roosevelt described this experience: "Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as president of the United States. And when you are, you'll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You'll learn what a lonely job this is."6

THE MODERN PRESIDENT IS CONSTANTLY BEATEN DOWN BY demands, large and small. His work is never done. He is alone in his struggle to fight off those who want a piece of him. Every hour brings another demand, another obligation, another crisis.

Few leaders are impeached or assassinated; most die from a thousand cuts. The cuts come from those closest to them—the people who walk through the president's door each day. They have problems that demand attention and solutions that merit action. They want to get things done and the president is the most powerful agent for helping them to achieve their goals. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson (among other presidents) struggled with this dynamic. Despite war and expansive government policies, they faced a continuous stream of requests for more—more programs for the needy, more assistance for the productive, more weapons for the warriors, and more support for the peacemakers. Expansive government activities also created multiplying conflicts between different bureaus and their chiefs—conflicts that the president, reluctantly, had to mediate.

Reading over the daily calendars of presidents, it is startling how much time they spend fending off small demands and mediating petty conflicts. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson were not unique. Their days were filled with solving other people's problems. Lincoln had to contend with the incompetence and infighting of men overseeing the acquisition of supplies for the Union Army. Roosevelt assembled a New Deal empire with powerful issue advocates and monumental egos. Most famously, Johnson's White House telephones kept the chief executive in constant touch with advisors, congressmen, and governors—even when he was in the bathroom—so that he could solve their problems and procure the favors he wanted in return. Listening to Johnson on the phone, one hears more hectoring, pleading, and horse-trading than one might expect, given the aura of the office.

ONE OF PRESIDENT JOHNSON'S TENSE CONVERSATIONS WITH Alabama Governor George Wallace reveals how modern executive leadership really works. Although the president had promoted an ambitious civil rights agenda from the moment he assumed office, he felt embattled in his encounters with impatient advocates, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and recalcitrant opponents, especially Wallace. Johnson needed to navigate between the extremes, trying to address everyone's concerns.

On 18 March 1965, the president had to protect marchers in Selma, Alabama, who had been brutally beaten by state troopers for demanding voting rights, and he had to restore order in a Southern state that had already descended into street violence—much of it encouraged by its segregationist governor. Johnson wanted Wallace to allow a peaceful civil rights march and limit white violence. He had to help Wallace as he also helped Wallace's adversaries.

JOHNSON: I am always standing by, and you can always call me anytime you want to.

WALLACE: These people are pouring in from all over the country.… All I want to say quite frankly is that they've been stirring up by a lot of things, and of course, I know you don't want anything to happen that looks like a revolution, but if these people keep pouring in here and conducting themselves in the manner they are, it's going to take everybody in the country to stop something.

JOHNSON: When you talk about a revolution, that really upsets us all, and we don't want, I know you don't, and I know I don't, and we just got to work together as best we can to see we discharge our duties, and I am willing to do it, if this is what you want.

WALLACE: What about the next day after the march is over?

JOHNSON: I guess no one can really prophesize… I sure don't know, I wish I knew… I might issue a statement later today saying, I ask people not to go into the state, and we're going to jointly try to protect the march… If you call up your guard, I'll put the best people we've got to work right with them… I think I just ought to say that I am asking people in the country not to let this thing get out of hand. And we don't need any more marching down there.7

Lyndon Johnson relished his power to manipulate people, but he was hardly unique in his need to do so. The presidency has always been a shell game where the man on top moves the pieces around the table to fend off challengers, appease advocates, and keep his supporters on the team. There are always too many problems without obvious solutions for the president to lead as decisively as one might expect. Uncertainty and complexity undermine every president's desire for simple, strong action.

IN ITS EXTREMES OF POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY, THE US presidency is the most talked about and least understood office in the world. Presidents are elected to accomplish big things, but they spend most of their time focusing on problems that do not serve, and frequently contradict, their larger agendas. Presidents command the most powerful military in the world, but they repeatedly confront the frustrating limits of what they can achieve by force. Presidents are revered around the globe, but they have trouble translating their celebrity into tangible influence. Most of all, presidents are elected by the people, but they spend most of their time in office cut off from any unscripted contact with ordinary citizens. Presidential power is awesome and pathetic at the same time.

The president has too many people to please and too many issues to address. The scholar Richard Neustadt made this point more than fifty years ago when he observed that leaders—even those with the popularity of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—are forced to "bargain" for their power with numerous stakeholders, and they are often bargaining from weakness. President Barack Obama must have felt this acutely during budget disputes with a defiant Republican Congress. President Ronald Reagan had a similar experience when he failed to convince a Democratic Congress to adopt his promised spending cuts.8

As George Washington recognized, the president is institutionally constrained by Congress, the Supreme Court, the states, and various partisan factions. The president cannot raise money or make laws without the approval of these institutions. He cannot appoint the diplomats, generals, judges, and cabinet advisors that he wants without their consent. The president cannot even enter foreign negotiations without the intervention of other parts of the US government. Confronted by popular dissent from his treaty with Great Britain (the "Jay Treaty") and the efforts to undermine his policies by a popular French visitor ("Citizen" Edmond-Charles Genêt), Washington was only the first president to lament the domestic "encroachments" on his ability to lead as the public expected. Every one of his successors has voiced the same frustration as the encroachments only became more frequent and intense with each passing decade.

In addition to the institutional limitations on power, presidents confront ever-greater difficulties in managing their time. Washington often felt overextended by his daily responsibilities, and that problem has multiplied exponentially across two centuries. Due to the breadth of his responsibilities and the ever-faster movement of international developments, the contemporary presidency is in perpetual "crisis" mode, constantly running to catch up with events. On any given day, a president will have to respond to a mass shooting in an American city, the failure of a major financial firm, an attack on American forces abroad, a credible terrorist warning, and Russian and Chinese bullying of neighbors, as well as ceremonial duties with a visiting foreign leader and a recent national championship sports team.

The pace of the presidency is punishing, and the president himself becomes necessarily defensive. Instead of storing up their energy to make winning shots, presidents find themselves hitting frequent soft returns to keep the ball in play and avoid unforced errors. President Obama admitted as much, revealing the pressure to respond without risk to numerous challenges and the anxiety about doing too much of anything. 9

President Obama was hardly alone. Even President Ronald Reagan, who tried to focus his attention on a few big issues, found himself pulled into budget disputes, hostage crises, and an international AIDS epidemic that defined much of his time in office. The imperial appearance of the modern president is belied by the fragmented experience of the global policy-maker.

With a country as large and complex as the United States, and international responsibilities that extend to every region of the globe, it is impossible for the leader of the free world to master the overwhelming number of conflicts that reach him for comment and reaction. If he makes sense of some of them, thanks to his advisors, it is difficult for him to understand their connections to one another, and the consequences of American action in one area for other regions. Every day—almost every hour—presidents are asked to make decisions that will affect millions of lives in distant places they barely comprehend, with severely constrained information, and profound uncertainty about consequences.

Presidents also know that their every move will be carefully scrutinized and savagely criticized by friends and foes alike. This was true for the partisan press of Washington's time, and it has become pervasive with the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the Internet, social media, and contemporary "news-entertainment," where manufacturing political scandals is part of the regular reporting diet. Presidents know they will only face greater condemnation if they reveal the hesitation and real limits that surround everything they do. They overcompensate by exaggerating their confidence, their commitment, and the promised consequences of their actions.

Even though recent presidents have sent American soldiers abroad with uncertainty about the threat the nation faced and the military's prospect for success, they have still promised to "eliminate tyranny as we know it" and build democracies on short deadlines. Similarly, even though they recognized how little direct control they had over the economy, the environment, education, and health, presidents repeatedly predicted big achievements in each of these areas. Rising expectations of presidential power encourage unrealistic promises, followed by popular disappointment and perceptions of executive "weakness."

The problem is that policies are oversold and then underperform. Presidential rhetoric creates commitments that undermine effectiveness. This was true for both George W. Bush's Global War on Terror and Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which became prisoners to caricatured definitions of "success," despite some real but largely ignored accomplishments.10

OUR POOR UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRESIDENCY HAS PREVENTED us from addressing the structural impediments to effectiveness in office. In the speeches citizens hear and the advertisements they watch, candidates talk about the outcomes they want to achieve—from robust economic growth to impregnable national security—without any serious discussion about how the presidency can make those outcomes a reality. Few reporters ask about implementation. Most candidates do not really know how they will generate the promised results.

We elect presidents based on aspirations—ours and theirs—not on effectiveness, since we cannot know how they will perform in office, even if they have had long careers in politics. Once in office, newly elected presidents are overwhelmed by the constraints on their power, and they fall into the same reactive and fragmented pattern of their predecessors. The pattern tightens with every successive administration because the demands and constraints increase along with the unpreparedness of the candidates. The power that looks so impressive outside the presidency becomes imprisoning and debilitating for those who hold it—just as Thomas Jefferson predicted.

These circumstances, not the personal failings of leaders, explain why it has been at least fifty years (since Lyndon Johnson) that a new president had a successful first year in office. After Johnson, nearly every president has seen his agenda stymied and his popularity decline—despite all the misleading talk of presidential "honeymoons." In reality, new presidents begin a quick and often irreversible slide into mediocrity from the moment of inauguration, when the onrush begins. We can expect the same for future presidencies.11



  • A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
  • "[A] succinct and original volume."
    New York Times Book Review
  • "[A]n illuminating look at the highest office in the land and its occupants....Lively and well-grounded, offering good measures by which to judge our best and worst presidents and their methods of governing."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "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."—American Interest Magazine
  • "Why do our elected monarchs continue both to inspire and disappoint us? Jeremi Suri answers that question with a brilliant account of what America's most important presidents accomplished and why they inevitably failed to live up to their promise. Written with grace and authority, his book is one of the wisest histories of U.S. politics I have read in years."
    Michael Kazin, author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
  • "The smart and engaging first half of the book tracks the rise of the presidency, beginning with its origins as a radical new idea.... From there Suri ably documents how the office grew."—Washington Post
  • "Suri's timely and largely persuasive book explores the ways in which the presidency, which began as a very limited department of a very small government, has sprawled into a hydra-headed behemoth that ultimately thwarts even presidents with strong qualifications for the job.... Suri makes a strong case for one more national conversation we need to have."—Dallas Morning News
  • "A superb introduction to the challenges of the American presidency. No other book shows more clearly the importance of studying the past in order to understand current predicaments. Jeremi Suri's work is first-rate history as well as a source of inspiration and hope."—Odd Arne Westad, winner of the Bancroft Prize and author of The Cold War: A World History
  • "At a time when American political institutions are in crisis and when quick assessments and soundbites often seem our best avenues of understanding, Jeremi Suri's deep and thoughtful historical perspective on the construction and destruction of the modern presidency is especially welcome.... A challenging and timely accounting, with interesting suggestions on how the presidency may be reimagined or reconfigured."—Steven Hahn, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910

On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Jeremi Suri

About the Author

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the university’s Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Dr. Suri is the author and editor of eleven books on contemporary politics and foreign policy, most recently The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office. His other books include Henry Kissinger and the American CenturyLiberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, and Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. He writes widely for many publications and is also the host of the podcast This Is Democracy.  He tweets at @JeremiSuri. 

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