The Relentlessly Grim 'Anne With An E' Reveals The Limitations Of Today's TV


The present system elevates the crowd-pleasing qualifications above all others, and sets expectations for what a president can do well beyond what is actually possible in office. Media coverage, meanwhile, keeps the show going—and keeps the focus on the show. Cable networks promote debates with zooming lights and “voice of God” announcers, as if the candidates are backstage getting their hands wrapped in tape and loosening up with the medicine ball. Debate coverage is mostly like a theater review, and it starts before the curtain has come down. As Peter Hamby, a former CNN reporter and the current head of news at Snapchat, demonstrated in a 2013 paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, in the age of social media, voter impressions during debates are formed in the first minutes.

Candidates play to the snap judgments, practicing set-piece outbursts. In 2012, when Obama was perceived to have lost the first debate, his team emphasized that he needed to be a better performer. He was to be “fast and hammy.” When he would give a long and dry answer in practice sessions, he would be reminded: Fast and hammy!


As campaigning has become more about performance, the skills required to be president have become more defined by talent on the stump, an almost perfect reversal of what the Founders intended. The current system is so focused on persuasion over policy, argues Jeffrey K. Tulis, the author of >The Rhetorical Presidency, that he sees the country as governed by a second Constitution, one that is in tension with the original. The second Constitution puts a premium on active and continuous presidential courtship of popular opinion, on hot action over cool deliberation. “How could a president not be an actor?,” Ronald Reagan asked. Or, failing that, a reality-TV star?

Wilson wanted candidates to be in touch with the public, but he viewed campaigning as “a great interruption to the rational consideration of public questions.” We are now in an age of permanent campaigning, in which rhetorical talent is seen as a proxy for governing ability. In 1992, after Bill Clinton beat George H. W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle said, “If he governs as well as he campaigned, the country will be all right.” Republicans had argued that Clinton’s character faults disqualified him from office. In defeat, Quayle was articulating the common modern view—ratified by voters—that being a gifted campaigner was the more important quality.

With the line between campaigning and governing blurred, newly elected presidents are overconfident in their ability to tackle the job. Richard Neustadt, the historian of the presidency, described the mind-set of the winning campaign team:

Everywhere there is a sense of page turning, a new chapter in the country’s history, a new chance too. And with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, “they” couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, but “we” will. We just have done the hardest thing there is to do in politics. Governing has got to be a pleasure by comparison: We won, so we can!

Modern presidents who have just come to office on the strength of their rhetoric and showmanship are encouraged to continue relying on those skills. “They have been talking for two years, and that’s nearly all they’ve been doing. When they win, they conclude that they can convince people of anything,” the Texas A&M political scientist George C. Edwards III says. “The feedback is pretty strong.”

Governing is about more than talking, though. “The first thing a president needs to understand,” says Max Stier, the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, “is that in order to run a government, they are going to need capabilities different than the ones needed to win the right to run the government.”

Selling the voters on the idea that you are better than your opponent requires a different set of skills than achieving your preferred outcome on health-care legislation, where there is not one alternative but a series of alternatives on a series of aspects of the policy. Campaigning requires attack and comparison. Governing requires deliberation, cooperation, negotiation. A candidate for president has one constituency: the voters. A president has to navigate the interests of many parties: the voters, Congress, foreign leaders. The attributes that got him into office—Kennedy’s youthful vigor, Reagan’s nostalgic vision, Trump’s bombast—are only somewhat helpful in a job that requires a host of other skills.

In an ideal system, incoming presidents would have months of orientation to learn the ropes and break their rhetorical addiction. No such school exists for presidents. There is a transition process, but it doesn’t sufficiently prepare a president or his team.

Presidential transitions are a bigger undertaking than any private-sector transfer of power. In business, large mergers and acquisitions typically take a year or more and involve hundreds of staffers. Dow Chemical and DuPont announced their $130 billion merger in December 2015, and it closed in September 2017. A president-elect and his team have two and a half months between victory and inauguration to figure out how to run a $4 trillion government with a civilian workforce of 2 million, to say nothing of the military. The United States federal government is the most complicated conglomerate on the planet.

Unlike in a business acquisition, in which a new leader might retain staff from the target company as well as bring in his own trusted people, a president must start almost from scratch. He has as many as 4,000 fresh political appointments to make, including for more than 1,000 top leaders who will require Senate confirmation.

Putting a team in place quickly is crucial to making good decisions. Some temporary holdovers can manage in the interim, but they can get you only so far. “You’re not perceived as having authority; you’re like the substitute teacher,” Max Stier says of the holdovers. “And it’s hard to coordinate without having the authority and time to build relations.” With so many jobs to fill, few teams get much of a chance to work together before natural attrition starts.

The rush to staff up encourages new presidents to fill the administration with the people who helped them win the office in the first place, further entrenching a campaign mentality within the White House. The presidential scholar Shirley Anne Warshaw, who teaches at Gettysburg College, found that 58 percent of the senior posts in the Obama administration were filled by campaign staff. Some may have been suited to the unique challenges of the executive branch, but the system does not allow enough time to make certain of it. New presidents just have to hope for the best.

Presidents thus enter office burdened with campaign instincts, not governing ones; with a team that may lack experience in the tasks at hand; and with a long list of promises to keep to voters. In such a situation, patience would seem to be called for. That was Eisenhower’s advice: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault,’ not ‘leadership.’ I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know, or believe in, or will practice.”

Except, as Lyndon Johnson warned, new presidents only have a year before Congress starts thinking about midterms, which makes bold or bipartisan action difficult. David Broder of The Washington Post characterized Johnson’s first-100-day freneticism as a “half-mad, half-drunk Texas square dance, with Johnson, the fiddler and caller, steadily increasing the tempo, speeding up the beat.” That was before the era of hyperpartisanship, which has made presidential honeymoons short or nonexistent. No president wants to boast at his day-100 interview, “We’ve really made some strides in mastering organizational capacity and creating flow in our lines of authority.”

The push to meet expectations set during the campaign encourages frantic behavior. Harried aides cook up executive orders—even if the president campaigned against them and even if they don’t actually do much. Trump’s early days were a flurry of such actions. The cameras were called in and the theme music was cued, but several of his executive actions merely instructed agencies to look at problems and issue reports. I alone can PowerPoint it! Others, such as the travel ban, the exclusion of transgender people from the military, and tariffs on steel and aluminum, were poorly vetted and incited massive backlashes.

We all know what this desire to execute looks like in our own lives. The president is the jumpy man who presses the elevator button a second time, then a third time—with his umbrella. It feels good. It looks like action. But the elevator does not move faster.

III. An Unfathomable Psychological Squeeze

The former White House photographer Pete Souza’s book, a collection of more than 300 photos of Barack Obama’s presidency, is a tour through the psychological landscape of the office. President Obama stands by the bedside of wounded soldiers he sent into battle and in the ruins left by natural disasters. He counsels his daughter from a seat on the backyard swing while on television oil oozes from the Deepwater Horizon spill. He sits, leans, and paces through endless meetings. He plays host—to the Chinese president, the Israeli premier, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, kids in Halloween costumes, African American boys and girls.

The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet. Meanwhile, the president lives in a most peculiar unreality. His picture is on almost every wall of his workplace. The other walls contain paintings of the men who achieved greatness in his job, as well as those who muddled through. It’s like taking a test with your competition’s scores posted around you.

Obama told an aide that he had a recurring dream. In it, he was enjoying a peaceful walk. Suddenly, he was noticed. The dream became a nightmare. (Pete Souza / White House)

When a president travels, he has his own doctor, security, exercise equipment, and water. It all gets moved around on his airplanes. If the Secret Service thinks the bathroom in a foreign country might cause the president to slip, agents will lay down protective strips to give him traction when he gets out of the tub. Grover Cleveland used to answer his own front door. Now presidents touch door handles only in their private quarters. Their lives are babyproofed.

At the same time, the American president is constantly subjected to the harshest scrutiny from outside his bubble. This is a long-standing tradition. The New York Times devoted 500 words to Calvin Coolidge’s indigestion. (It was the cantaloupe.) The president is the biggest celebrity in the world. Eyes are always watching, ready to imbue a grimace with meaning.

Everyone waves—and everyone expects a wave in return. If the president is close enough, people expect a selfie. Photographers can capture a note about needing a bathroom break that he jots in a meeting, and someone is always at a keyboard ready to make a cultural moment out of a thought that escapes his subconscious. Obama told an aide that he had a recurring dream. In it, he was enjoying a peaceful walk. He was alone and undisturbed. Suddenly, he was noticed. The dream became a nightmare, and he awoke.

While emoting at all the appropriate times in all the appropriate ways, a president must also wear masks to hide his intentions—from world leaders, political adversaries, and allies alike. This allows him room to negotiate. Senator Huey Long complained about Franklin Roosevelt: “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But [Senator] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says, ‘Fine!’ to everybody.” New York Governor Al Smith was once asked whether he had gotten a commitment from Roosevelt, and responded, “Did you ever nail a custard pie to a wall?” Roosevelt’s flexibility was considered a great and necessary presidential skill. But a man who wears masks must do a lot of work to keep them from slipping.

Can one person handle all this? In 1955, former President Herbert Hoover completed a review—his second—of executive-branch efficiency and suggested the addition of an administrative vice president to help the overloaded president. (The existing vice president was apparently already too busy.) Hoover’s report was issued a few months before President Eisenhower had his first heart attack. It was the fifth heart attack or stroke to hit a current or former president since the Wilson administration ended, in 1921. This caused the columnist Walter Lippmann to wonder whether the job was too much for one man to bear. Addressing the “intolerable strain” on the president, Lippmann wrote, “The load has become so enormously greater … because of the wars of this century, because of the huge growth of the American population, of the American economy, and of American responsibilities.”

Since then, the weight of the job has grown even heavier. The Souza photograph that marks the day Obama describes as the hardest of his presidency shows him standing with one of the 26 families he comforted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. That day, when a mother broke down, the president handed her a tissue.

Presidents aren’t trained as pastors, but they have been thrust into that role, too. They must comfort the nation in the shadow of tragedy. Woe unto the president who selects the wrong sermon for the occasion. “Now it’s not enough to do it,” Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and top assistant to Reagan, says of performing the pastor role. “You have to do it in the exactly right, sensitive way.” And the better you do it—the more aware you are that a woman beside you needs a Kleenex—the more draining it is on your soul.

Then there are the men and women who might die as a result of the president’s orders. He may soon be called on to console their families, too. An aide to George W. Bush says that when the president was deciding whether to send more troops into Iraq in 2007, at a time when the public and members of his own administration wanted the U.S. to withdraw, he began wearing a mouth guard at night, because he was grinding his teeth so much in his sleep.

Truman said the decision to go to war in Korea had been the hardest decision of his presidency. A letter sent to him by the father of a soldier who died in that war, returning his son’s Purple Heart, suggests just how hard it was:

Mr. Truman,

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

Truman kept the letter in his desk drawer long after his term ended, a testament to the weight that remained on him even after he left the Oval Office. If a president thinks too much about the widows he’s making or the children who will never know their mother because of his orders, he might not be able to perform the role of commander in chief. Learning to compartmentalize is a necessity for presidents. Some compartments are locked so tight, even the president’s closest advisers never see their contents.

During the final phase of planning the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011, Obama chaired the National Security Council on five occasions. Those five days tell the story of just how quickly a president must switch between his public and private duties. The events that took place immediately before and after those secret bin Laden meetings included: an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya. On April 27, the day before Obama chaired his last National Security Council meeting on the bin Laden raid, his White House released his long-form birth certificate to answer persistent questions about his birthplace raised by the man who would be his successor.

In the two days before the raid itself, Obama flew to Alabama to visit tornado victims and to Florida to visit with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was recuperating from a gunshot wound. On Saturday, April 30, with the operation under way but its outcome uncertain, he attended the White House Correspondents’ dinner, where he had to entertain journalists with a comedy routine. In the joke-writing process, he had removed a quip about bin Laden. His aides were given no hint of why.

The high-stakes military operation made this stretch particularly fraught psychologically, but it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary. Denis McDonough, who served Obama as chief of staff, says the pace was usually such that it became “a rare ability to know what day it was. Every night feels like Tuesday night.”

The relentlessness of the job depletes a president’s powers of restraint, and yet restraint is crucial for wise decision making. “You have to have a high tolerance for pain,” says Jay Carney, one of Obama’s press secretaries. “Sometimes that means letting yourself be misunderstood,” refusing opportunities to score easy debating points in favor of the long view.

At times, an opportunity to get a quick win has to be put off for a later, bigger victory. Focusing on short-term success might please the pundits, but it keeps an administration from doing the hard, obscure, boring work needed to address looming national problems that will be too big to tackle once they become emergencies—the shrinking middle class, the changing climate, the rising health-care costs straining the federal budget. Even the most above-it-all president is continuously tempted to privilege the small over the big and the now over the future.

>As Lyndon Johnson put it, sometimes the president is little more than “a jackass in a hailstorm.”

The current president gives in to such temptations. It may be an efficiency—what a relief to give vent to your every moment of pique. But Trump is serving with historically low approval ratings, and even his supporters do not like his constant sniping and complaining about the merest slight. The risk of impulsiveness isn’t just to the president’s own reputation. It also tarnishes the prestige of the office when a president fumes over the latest segment from Fox & Friends.

Successful presidents learn to keep their powder dry, even when doing so might make them seem weak. A president has the power to determine who lives and who dies—sometimes by the thousands—yet he is also frequently powerless, which led the political theorist Hannah Arendt to define the president of the United States as at once the strongest and the weakest of all national leaders. A president must be willing to endure that paradox. As Lyndon Johnson put it, sometimes the president is little more than “a jackass in a hailstorm.”

IV. A Historic Partisan Gap

“Any discussion of how hard it is to manage the presidency has to start with the weakness of Congress,” Denis McDonough says. “You can’t have a president solve problems the legislative branch has not.”

On September 30, 1990, President George H. W. Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden before a bank of Brooks Brothers suits containing the leaders of Congress. The government was set to run out of money that day, a familiar story to contemporary ears. But what those men said would seem less familiar. The Republican president praised the Democratic leaders, and they praised him right back. Congressional leaders of both parties praised each other.

The president and assembled lawmakers were announcing the Budget Summit Agreement, a mix of spending reductions and tax increases meant to tame deficits. The agreement capped five months of intense wrangling, which had ended in a sprint of negotiations. For 11 days and nights at Andrews Air Force Base, meat-fed men (Monday was prime-rib night) had argued until they’d come to an accommodation. The outcome was one the Framers would have approved of: Lawmakers of strong opinions had compromised rather than resorting to open conflict. The results were imperfect, but preferable to inaction.

At least, that was one way to see it. The alternative view was that leaders of both parties had compromised their principles, and no one had done so more than Bush himself, having gone back on the “no new taxes” pledge he’d made during the 1988 campaign. This sentiment played out on the other half of CNN’s split-screen coverage that overcast day. Juxtaposed with Bush was footage of Representative Newt Gingrich leaving the White House. The second-ranking House Republican refused to join the celebration, or to follow his party’s president. “It was a betrayal of his pledge and a betrayal of Reaganism,” Gingrich told the Bush biographer Jon Meacham. Gingrich headed back to the Hill, where conservatives waited to greet him as a rebel hero.

Bush’s victory that day sowed the seeds of his defeat in the 1992 election. “It did destroy me,” Bush told Meacham. After this, it was taken as truth that no Republican politician could survive disappointing the conservative core.

The split screen that day encapsulated the dilemma for modern presidents: Work with the other side and be called a traitor, or refuse to work with them and get nothing done. Days after the Rose Garden ceremony, the deal announced there collapsed. Liberal Democrats voted against their leaders because they wanted more government spending. Conservative Republicans voted against their leaders because they opposed tax increases and wanted more spending cuts. Republicans running for reelection in 1990 needed the base to win. If they’d rallied behind the budget deal, they’d have risked being voted out of office. “What is good for the president may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans,” Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, a Gingrich ally, told The Washington Post. “We need wedge issues to beat incumbent Democrats.”

In the 27 years since the announcement of the doomed Budget Summit Agreement, the parties have become only more partisan. Particularly in the Republican Party, primary challenges await lawmakers who dare enter into a bipartisan compromise. The purity ministry is proctored by talk-radio hosts, well-funded outside organizations, and countless social-media warriors.

The growth in partisanship means that when it comes to the basic business of government, the president and Congress are in constant turmoil. Shutdowns and federal-budget stalemates are now regular occurrences. Congress has not passed a spending bill on time in 20 years. Congressional oversight, once used to identify future risks and monitor the executive branch, is now robust mainly when it comes to tying the opposition’s shoelaces together.

When presidents do work with Congress, the achievements are partisan. Obama signed health-care reform flanked only by Democrats. Trump celebrated his tax-cut bill with only Republicans.

Bipartisan ceremonies at the White House have become rarer, low-stakes affairs, or the last of a kind. One of the final times Republicans showed up at the Obama White House was to promote free trade, an issue Trump used to defeat his GOP rivals. Republicans are no longer such boosters of the idea. “The political system acts against success for a president,” says Mitch Daniels, who also served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush. “The new tribalism is right up there with the national debt as the biggest threat to our nation.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis agrees: The greatest threat America faces, he told me, is “the lack of political unity.”

When the relationship between Congress and the White House breaks down, pundits like to invoke Lyndon Johnson. Through sheer force of will, they suggest, a president can get the machine going again, spurring Congress into action.

But Johnson is not the model. He had a unique résumé as a former Senate majority and minority leader and could take advantage of a martyred president’s legacy to build support for his policies. His party also had a large majority in both houses.

The idea that presidents can break through gridlock if they just try hard enough nevertheless persists. “The president has got to start inviting people over for dinner,” Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, advised during Obama’s tenure. “He’s got to play golf with them. He has to pick up the phone and call and say, ‘I know we disagree on this, but I just want to say—I heard it was your wife’s birthday’ or ‘Your kid just got into college.’ He has to go build friendships.”

Presidential candidates buy into the Johnson myth because it allows them to pitch themselves as the unique solution to Washington’s problems. “One of the things I’m good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas, who sometimes violently disagree with each other, and finding common ground and a sense of common direction,” Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes in 2008.

By the end of Obama’s first term, the president and his aides had given up on the idea of deal making entirely. Pundits regularly advised him to just sit down and have a drink with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the way Truman shared bourbons with congressional leaders. “You have a drink with Mitch McConnell,” Obama joked in response. Two years into Obama’s tenure, McConnell had said the GOP’s most important job was making sure the president served a single term. Privately, little irked Obama more than the claim that he should be doing more to work with an opposition that didn’t want to work with him.

The call for presidents to sit down with the leaders of the opposing party is a vestige of a time when presidents and lawmakers were less connected to their party and when the parties were more ideologically and geographically heterogenous than they are today. They could appeal to ad hoc coalitions in Congress, which formed around beliefs on specific issues. As Senate minority leader, Johnson, a Democrat, helped Eisenhower defeat conservative Republicans who were pushing the Bricker Amendment, which would have limited presidential power in foreign affairs. As president, Johnson relied on the Republican Everett Dirksen to get civil-rights legislation passed over the opposition of conservative Democrats. As late as 1978, Republican Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker was willing to risk his own presidential aspirations to help Democratic President Jimmy Carter get the 67 votes needed to give Panama control of the Panama Canal.

The electoral map once encouraged compromise and cross-party coalitions. During Nixon’s and Reagan’s terms, more than half of the senators in the states they carried were Democrats. Those senators had constituents who liked the president, even though he belonged to the other party, which gave those senators room to make deals with him. About 80 percent of the senators from the states Obama won were of his party. The same is true of Trump.

These lawmakers have to answer to voters who are as far apart on the political spectrum as they’ve been in generations. The Pew Research Center has been studying partisan positions since 1994, testing views on fundamental political issues—whether regulations do more harm than good, whether black Americans face systemic racism, whether immigrants are a burden, and whether corporations make reasonable profits. In 1994, the members of the two major parties were only 15 percentage points apart, on average. Now they are an average of 36 points apart. That partisan gap is much larger than the differences between the opinions of men and women, of black and white Americans, and of other divisions in society. A president can’t build a coalition to support health-care legislation when the two parties fundamentally disagree whether the government should be involved in health care at all.

The partisan gap in how people view presidents is also as wide as it has ever been. On average, during his two terms Eisenhower enjoyed the approval of 49 percent of Democrats. Obama had the support of 14 percent of Republicans over the course of his presidency. Just 8 percent of Democrats approved of Trump last summer. In this environment, no matter how many drinks a president has with the leaders of the opposition, he’s not going to change their minds. “I don’t understand how you manage people in Congress in either party into seeing that some level of accommodation is in their interest,” says Bolten, the former George W. Bush chief of staff. “Presidents can’t negotiate like Lyndon Johnson, because members have no reason to fear the president.” But voters don’t want excuses. They want action. When Congress can’t act, it puts more items on the president’s to-do list, though he frequently lacks the tools and authority to act himself.

V. How to Fix It

To repair the modern presidency, politicians, the public, and the press need to change their expectations about the office and focus on what is realistic. The president is not a superhero. He is human, fallible, capable of only so much. So what do we want him to do—and how can we help him do it?

hit the ground running

“The Romney Readiness Project” is the most valuable contribution to the modern presidency from a man who didn’t win the office. It is a 140-page distillation of the work of Mitt Romney’s transition team, a six-month process of preparing for the job in 2012. The volume is filled with organizational charts, prioritization matrices, and tables that match jobs with responsibilities. Six hundred people were involved in planning for a Romney transition by the end of his campaign, participating in exercises in which they practiced moving ideas and legislation through the federal system. When people talk about the benefits of having a businessman in the White House, this example of careful attention is no doubt what they expect.

The businessman who succeeded where the former Massachusetts governor failed did not exactly bring the same rigor to the transition process. Donald Trump’s team followed a playbook that seemed at times to have been drawn on a napkin. The transition experienced all the typical flaws—infighting, skepticism toward those with expertise from the previous administration, wasted work—and a few new ones for good measure. Veterans of previous White Houses stressed to Trump’s team the value of building systems to manage information and aid decision making. They report that they were either humored or ignored by frantic staffers trying to keep up with the boss’s demands.

Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service has devoted his career to trying to make the federal government operate more efficiently. He pushed Congress to pass the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act, which put some structure in place to help a new president prepare. And he suggests that Congress should seek to formalize a transition process like the one Romney intended to follow.

Under Stier’s new plan, each party’s nominee would take steps to form a government-in-waiting and learn the folkways of the federal system. “It’s not fair to the American public,” he says, “for a candidate to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to go through that Now what? moment when I get into office, and you’re all just going to suffer along with me on that.’ ”

Voters and the media could do their part by dispensing with the idea that any candidate who thinks about the nuts and bolts of the presidency before the first Tuesday in November is prematurely measuring the Oval Office drapes. We should do the opposite: evaluate candidates based on their commitment to the transition, using it as a sign of seriousness. How they think about the transition offers a view into how they would approach the job: Can they focus on an important long-term task while engaged in the day-to-day urgency of the campaign? Can they put the right people in place?

“We used to put time on his schedule just so that he could think,” Leon Panetta said of Bill Clinton. (Diana Walker / Liaison / Getty)

Since the 2016 election, public attention has understandably focused on fake news, Russian interference, and how to keep elections from being destabilized again. But susceptibility to foreign manipulation is hardly the only flaw in our electoral system. The American public and press also need to reconcile the gap between the office as it is debated during campaigns and its actual demands. We need to do a better job of using the campaign to test for the qualities that will serve a president in office: management talent, governing effectiveness, and temperament. In a job with such psychological strain, we should pay closer attention to the candidates’ disposition and mettle. “One thing about the presidency is that it doesn’t build character; it reveals it,” says Dan Bartlett, the George W. Bush communications director.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This kind of shift in public attitude would be miraculous given today’s tribalism, the dominance of hot-take journalism, and the churn of social media. Reporters and pundits gravitate toward easy narratives, and candidates, parties, special-interest groups, and financial kingmakers all benefit from crude, predictable fights over values and identity. When so much advantage can be gained by stoking emotions, why stop and consider a candidate’s reason?

Joseph Califano, Lyndon Johnson’s former domestic-policy aide, suggests that one possible way to interrupt the present system is for centrists to storm the primaries. A small percentage of party members currently take part in the presidential nominating process. Most of those who do are ideologically extreme, more interested in litmus tests than testing for experience and character. If people with fewer fixed opinions joined in, they might select candidates who demonstrate the preparedness and open-mindedness to govern.

Elevate Experience

While we’re in the realm of the unlikely, we should also stop thinking of experience in Washington as a liability. This is not a new tension in American politics. Hoover noted, “When we are sick, we want an uncommon doctor; when we have a construction job to do, we want an uncommon engineer; and when we are at war, we want an uncommon general. It is only when we get into politics that we are satisfied with the common man.”

Today, candidates who have no familiarity with Washington enjoy a distinct advantage; those who do are seen as denizens of the swamp. This bias ensures that the president has none of the skills and relationships honed by years of service that might give him a fighting chance of breaking through the partisan gridlock.

Voters—particularly Republican ones—have a tendency to romanticize the can-do spirit of the corporate CEO. But we don’t engage in anything like the CEO selection process when we hire our commander in chief. Gautam Mukunda, a Harvard political scientist and professor of organizational behavior, has studied how the electorate might better seek out the qualities of command in presidential candidates. He points out that businesses rely on a filtering system that tries to let through only those leadership candidates who have the basic attributes necessary for the job. “We shouldn’t believe that a good CEO [necessarily] makes a good president,” Mukunda says, “but we should notice that CEOs are selected through a process that is far more careful and deliberate and rationally destined to pick candidates who fit the job.” Americans who pledge a fondness for the effectiveness of the business world could apply some business-world wisdom to their own decision making by picking leaders the way companies do: by favoring, not punishing, candidates with pertinent experience.

OnBoard the President

A manual for newly elected presidents might include the following tips:

Previous success does not predict future success. In fact, previous achievements may impede progress as president. “The natural instinct of a newly elected president is to approach the job like they operated in their previous roles,” says Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and chairman of Romney’s transition team. But the presidency is unlike any previous job. The sooner presidents realize that they are going to have to master new skills to run an effective White House, the better. Every president has to learn this, Leavitt says. “They know how to get elected, but they have to learn how to govern.”

Actions speak louder than words—or at least they’re more important. Because rhetoric has been the coin of the realm during the campaign, new presidents fall into the trap of thinking they can talk their way around any problem. “The modern presidency is not impossible,” the political scientist Elaine Kamarck writes in her book >Why Presidents Fail. “But it does require a reorientation of the presidency itself—toward the complex and boring business of government and away from the preoccupation with communicating.”

If you want to move fast, you first need to move slow. This is especially hard medicine to take, because presidents are so flushed with new power. On Christmas morning, no one wants to wait for Mom and Dad to get up to open presents. Most new presidents campaigned on the idea that they would not fall prey to the incumbent’s sluggishness and lack of will. Things will be different when I get to town, they told their adoring crowds. But there are no easy calls as president. The system for presidential decision making has to be methodical, because presidential decisions are uniquely difficult. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama told Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”

In many instances, a president makes a decision without the certainty that comes from having done all the work leading up to it. “What presidents do every day is make decisions that are mostly thrust upon them, the deadlines all too often outside of their control on options mostly framed by others,” Richard Neustadt, whose memos on the presidency have guided generations in the office, wrote. To make these decisions a president needs to have space for reflection. “We used to put time on his schedule just so that he could think,” Leon Panetta told me, referring to Bill Clinton.

Embrace the bubble. Obama eventually came to realize that he had to consider the “Barack Obama” discussed in the press to be an entirely different person from himself to keep from becoming personally invested in criticism. Presidents have to ignore the reviews and the constant chatter; there is too much of it, and too much of it is uninformed. If he can’t ignore the chatter, he needs to find a safe way to vent: When criticism got to him, Harry Truman would write “long hand spasms,” splenetic outbursts that his staff were empowered to dispose of properly. To guard against being out of touch, meanwhile, a president has to designate someone to tell him the truth and then believe that person when he delivers unwelcome news. Candor will be elusive in the Oval Office, where everyone’s instinct is to flatter the boss. “The subordinate needs to be willing to tell the truth to power,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told me on Face the Nation last May, “but the boss needs to be big enough to recognize that person is actually trying to help them.”

Trust your staff. Given the weight of every decision, and the fact that even good presidents can make bad ones, the system that delivers a set of options to the Resolute Desk has to be as solid as possible. Alternatives have to be presented by staffers who have expertise, understand the president’s mind, and can trust that their work will be put before the president fairly. “The first thing I think the American people should be looking for is somebody that can build a team and create a culture that knows how to organize and move the ball down the field,” Obama told me before the 2016 election. “No matter how good you are as president, you are overseeing … the largest organization on Earth. And you can’t do it all by yourself.”

Obama’s prescription is similar to the road map drawn by H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff for much of his administration, who created the template for the modern White House organization. Using his experience as an advertising executive, he drew up a careful system to staff the presidency. “Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first for accuracy and form, for lateral coordination, checked for related material, reviewed by competent staff concerned with that area, and all that is essential for Presidential attention,” he wrote.

What Haldeman knew is that an office this complex can’t have improvisational staffers—or an improvisational president. (An ironic bit of wisdom, given his fate and that of the Nixon administration, but no less valid for that ignominy.) A president can of course overrule his staff, or change his mind. But there needs to be a process, and a baseline of consistency. “Unpredictability can be occasionally helpful,” says Kenneth Duberstein, who served as White House chief of staff for Reagan. “But it can’t be an operating management style.”

>The next successful president, says a top Reagan aide, will concentrate relentlessly on a few well-chosen goals.

“It’s like an air-traffic-control tower managing 100 airplanes who think they have an emergency and need to land, now,” says Leavitt, who also served as secretary of health and human services under George W. Bush. “To work well, the presidency has to have order and structure. To someone supremely confident in their ability to instinctively know the answer to every question, this could seem overly bureaucratic. However, when the process is not allowed to operate, the consequence is a lot of crashes.”

The crashes may not come immediately, but they are inevitable, and when they happen, a system for effective operation cannot be put in place retroactively. This is perhaps the greatest looming challenge for the Trump administration, which is stress-testing everything we know about the orderly operation of a White House. “Effective government is like an airbag,” says Harvard’s Mukunda. “You don’t notice it most of the time, but when things go wrong, you really want it to be there.”

Empower your Cabinet. Even if his White House operation is zooming safely down the interstate, a president can’t make every decision from the Oval Office. There’s just too much to do. Instead, presidents should follow Calvin Coolidge’s model. “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” he said.

In the modern executive branch, that means giving Cabinet secretaries some leash. George Shultz advised Donald Trump to resist letting the White House dominate everything. “That has become a tendency, to put decision making and even operational things in the White House,” says the former secretary of state under Reagan and Treasury secretary under Nixon. “So I would hope the president might say something like this: ‘I consider my Cabinet and sub-Cabinet people to be my staff. Those are the people I’m going to work with to develop policy. And they are the ones who are going to execute it under my supervision. But they’re going to execute it.’ When you do that, you get good people, you get all people who have been confirmed by the Senate, and you get better policy and you get better execution.”

To allow this kind of delegation to take place, though, Americans will have to give up their conception of where the buck stops. If a Cabinet officer makes a bad decision, the president should fix it and the system should adapt. But a president should not be held responsible for every decision made in every corner of his administration, or he’s liable to do as Carter did and try to make every decision himself—an impossible task. The media, for their part, will have to cover Cabinet officials in a substantive way and not just as a source of palace intrigue. There are better uses of shoe leather than sussing out where, exactly, Rex Tillerson was sitting when he learned he’d been fired.

Radically Simplify the Office

Delegation alone won’t be enough, though. Mitch Daniels argues that the overload of the job can be solved only by radically paring it back. This might require a break between the functional role of the job (defending the nation and building consensus for important legislation, the places where the presidential brain and only the presidential brain can be applied) and the ceremonial part of the job (visiting disaster sites, welcoming NCAA champions). The latter category might be impossible to lose altogether, but could probably be outsourced to the vice president. A future president might also redefine the role of the first spouse, tasking her—or him—with more of the visiting and hosting. In his 2017 book, >The Impossible Presidency, the University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri goes so far as to suggest adding a European-style prime minister who could take work off the president’s desk. “The next successful president is likely to be somebody who concentrates relentlessly on a few well-chosen goals,” Daniels says. “Someone who makes it plain that ‘there is only so much of me and there are only so many days. We have big problems. It’s not that I don’t care. I care deeply, but you’re not going to see me doing these things. You hired me to do a different job.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine an American president speaking that starkly to the American people. Then again, this may be another way in which Trump, however accidentally, may have given the country an opportunity to address a problem it has long ignored. Some of Trump’s norm-flouting has gotten him in trouble. On other occasions, he’s done the previously unimaginable—and the world has kept spinning. Perhaps this might embolden the next president to give an uncommon inaugural address:

My fellow Americans, for generations presidents have stood where I stand now and built a tower of disappointment. They have stacked promise upon promise. We will not judge their heart. This great country calls us all to be generous. But it is not generous to the institutions created by our Founders to stretch them beyond their limits. Therefore, I will devote my presidency to two essential goals: ensuring your safety and your prosperity. I will partake in no ceremony enjoyed by my predecessors if it does not align with these goals. Instead, America will have the pleasure of coming to know my vice president, Cabinet officials, and husband. Congress too will enjoy the opportunity to show its generous temperament by returning to American government as an active and equal participant.

Cynics in the media would roll their eyes. The opposing party would accuse the president of shirking her duties. But the American people might appreciate the candor, the humility, and the pledge to focus on the work that matters.

wake congress from its slumber

Another of the jobs the president could step back from is his hands-on legislative role. It’s not a task the Framers intended, and it makes him a less, not more, effective spur for Congress. “The legislative process sets you up for failure,” Dan Bartlett says. “The playbook is: You start in the House, but that pushes you [away from the center] and then the legislation gets defined that way. If you try to only embrace the ‘process’ and not the actual law, House members get upset. Then it goes to the Senate, and the bill gets more moderate, at which point the president is accused of not having principles.” If the president didn’t have to weigh in at every turn, Congress would be forced to take the legislative lead, relieving pressure on the executive and returning to the model the Founders intended. The president could reserve his political currency until the end of the process, when a lot of the sticky issues have been thought through. He would no longer engage as one of many grubby negotiators, but with a preserved stature as the voice of the nation.

Let Them Play Golf

However the duties of the presidency are reorganized, the public and even the president’s political opponents should allow him to relax. There is nothing dumber than the national fixation with the president’s vacation schedule. The presidency never leaves the president. Even when he is on the golf course, he has the work coursing through his head. Moments of escape are healthy.

Presidents have been denied the right to vacations, often by aspirants for their job. Once again, Eisenhower knew what was right. In a letter to his brother, written before he became president, Eisenhower said he had “thoroughly tested and proved the virtues of a complete and absolute rest,” promising that he would take not fewer than 10 weeks of vacation a year in order to hold off the disease of “overwork.” (He came close to achieving his goal with frequent visits to Gettysburg and Denver.)

Nixon, by contrast, quizzed his chief of staff about how little sleep he could get and still function. No one wants to follow the Nixon model on health management. The stress of the job and his demons drove him to drink and wander the White House grounds and the National Mall, dialing friends and adversaries late at night. Haldeman’s diaries are filled with daily temperature readings of the volatile president, a psychological decline that overtook the administration.

Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. “I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.

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Source : https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/a-broken-office/556883/

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