The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office
Basic Books 2017
The office of the president in the United States is one of the most visible institutions not just in its own country, but around the world as well. The expectations that the office and officeholder carries are considerable, as are the power that goes with the office. And yet, Americans are frequently disappointed in what their chief executive chooses to do, and perhaps as importantly, in what they choose not to do. For all the power an American president wields, he has a number of profound limitations, and the powerful expectations as well as the fear of failure constrain how effective the president can hope to be.
In Jeremi Suri’s Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office (Basic Books, 2017), Suri examines how the presidency came to be regarded as one of the most important institutions in the United States by using five different presidents as case studies, respectively discussing George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. Each of these men established some precedents while overturning others, and the result that their successors found it difficult to ignore the expectations that had been established for them. In one of the book’s more telling and chilling anecdotes, Suri notes that even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was attending to multiple different concerns, including ceremonial meetings. The end result has been an office so burdened by ceremonial, domestic, and international concerns that the president simply has no time left in the day to pay close attention to any one thing. Suri’s analysis shows how presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have been effectively unable to meet the expectations held by the public.
As polling and other metrics suggest that many Americans believe their government to be dysfunctional and at times corrupt, Suri’s analysis suggests that we need to look backwards to understand how the presidency came to be burdened by unrealistic beliefs in the power of the office. Once we understand how the country collectively crafted an office that can no longer effectively function, we can begin to consider solutions, several of which Suri offers as concluding remarks to this history.
Jeremi Suri is a professor of history and holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.