Presidency has become an impossible job – three intriguing ideas to fix it.

By JEREMI SURI / Posted on October 20, 2017

Americans expect their president to be equal parts CEO, diplomat-in-chief, commander of armed forces, party leader and motivational figure. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the presidency itself, suggests historian Jeremi Suri.

In its extremes of power and responsibility, the US presidency is probably 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. They command the most powerful military in the world, but they repeatedly confront the frustrating limits of what they can achieve by force. They’re 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. Their power is awesome and pathetic at the same time. Even the most capable modern presidents are doomed to fail, and limiting the failure and achieving some good along the way has become the best we can expect.

While presidents were heroes in the past, they became targets of derision by the second half of the twentieth century. (Watch Jeremi Suri’s TEDxSMU Talk: “How We Can Use History to Build a Better World.”) Presidents who oversold their policies and underperformed contributed to this dynamic, as did public impatience and misunderstanding about how policy is made. A healthy skepticism about leaders is valuable for democracy, but cynicism and anger tear the necessary fabric for experimentation and cooperation. Policy requires many hands working together, not cutting each other’s throats.

It was near-impossible to lead as president in 2016, and a lot of voters recognized that. Many of them chose to elect an anti-leader, Donald Trump, whose main qualification was that he had never served in public office and had no desire to act like a traditional public servant. “Blowing up the system” was perhaps an understandable reaction — millions of people who chose this path believed government had failed.

Disruption, however, is not a long-term strategy. Attacks on the very possibility of governance will never make our country great, and the fall of the presidency imperils any future rise of the US. Instead, we should use the election of 2016 to inspire renewed discussion of the office. America needs a new burst of institutional reform — not just endless debate about who should be president — and there’s an opportunity to redesign it for a new world.

1. Establish boundaries to the office.

The presidency has grown too large in its responsibilities and its expectations, well beyond the imaginings of the founders. What are the vital national interests presidents should address, and what are the powers they should have in those areas? The list of issues should be limited and the powers should match national needs.