The Impossible Presidency

From Washington to Trump, the President of the United States remains the most powerful title in the world. However, Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and Professor of Public Affairs and History at the University of Texas at Austin, would argue that the office is “destined to fail.” Suri joined The World Affairs Council on February 15, 2018 at Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum Library to discuss how the Oval Office has changed over time and why presidents often seem to have their hands tied by constraints.

In his recent book The Impossible IMG_9354Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, Suri takes a closer look at presidential records, starting with the origin of the office. The Presidential Office was designed by the Founders to be small with almost no staff and a very limited set of responsibilities. Looking ahead just a few terms, the office accumulated more responsibilities and in turn, failed to keep up. The structure of the Office was inherently not meant to handle what we, in 2018, may expect from our president. Suri explains that the expectations placed on any president exceed their abilities. He argues that the problem lies in our election system, which encourages candidates to make unattainable promises.

Suri’s research pointed out that at a certain point, once presidential power began rising, the effectiveness of presidents decreased. Though FDR was able to promise the world his “New Deal”, his concerns centered around only five countries. JFK on the other hand, had to consider every country that could be affected during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Suri points partially to Congress for endowing the Office of the Presidency with too much power. He argues that Congress does not want to take back responsibilities in fear of being held accountable for failures.

IMG_9322According to Suri, successes can be achieved when the president focuses their attention on specific issues. However, Suri recommends a different approach all together: a parliamentary system. With a Prime Minister, Suri explains, the powers of the executive branch are split between a Head of State and a Head of Government, creating time for the executive branch to act on domestic and foreign concerns.

Moving forward, though, Suri places his hope in millennials. Millennials are problem solvers and institution builders, Suri said. With the second oldest and wealthiest Congress in the history of the country, Suri believes the ideals and aspirations of millennials threaten the current state of Congress. In addition, Suri emphasizes the importance of funding the State Department. Rather than over funding muscle flexing, the United States must refocus on soft power and diplomacy.