The Evolution And Future Of The American Presidency

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President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on January 26, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on January 26, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

How the U.S. presidency became impossible. We talk to John Dickerson of CBS News about why he thinks the job is simply too much for anyone.


John Dickerson, 60 Minutes correspondent and CBS News political analyst. Contributing editor at The Atlantic. Author of "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency." (@jdickerson)

Kimberly Atkins, WBUR senior news correspondent covering national political news. (@KimberlyEAtkins)

Interview Highlights

What did the founding fathers have in mind when they conceived the office of the president?

John Dickerson: “They did so in a moment of panic because their first rough draft of how this thing was all going to go with the Articles of Confederation had turned out to not work out very well at all. And in going back and doing my work for the book, which included lots of interviews with people who are practitioners, but also looking at the history, you see what a gamble this was to rewrite the rules after 10 years. And basically they wanted to inject enough executive control that the country could react in a unified fashion to emergencies and to moments of national security peril.

"Also help connect the states with respect to the economy so that you didn't have 13 different sets of rules for things. But that the role of the president would be limited, sufficiently representative of the country to do things that only one body and one branch could do. But then would be very limited and Congress would do most of the work. And that's where that notion of diversity comes in. You have people representing all the different kinds of parts of America and people in America which gives a more durable cast to the laws that then govern Americans. And that was in the original conception of it. Now, the idea that we would filter all of our public questions through the one president would just seem crazy to the founders.”

On Donald Trump's use of the office of the president

John Dickerson: “When I say it's the hardest job in the world, I'm talking about it the way you would a brain surgeon. And the results are just as awful when it's done poorly. And so this isn't an attempt to make excuses. It's an attempt to understand the office so that we can place credit or blame in the right way. President Trump, he's basically not participated in many of the roles of the office — acting as a unifier in moments of national crisis or tension. He's actually seen political benefit in splitting the country. And that's not me saying that. That's members of his own party who've said it repeatedly. And this is moments of acute national crisis that we're in right now. But also just more broadly.

"He also has decided not to embrace the kind of more pastoral role or priestly role of the presidency. He's also, on national security, reshaped the way America operates in the world. Some people think that's quite good with turning his attention to China. But others obviously believe that by not maintaining alliances both in Asia and in Europe, he's left America deeply vulnerable. He also basically has a different view of working with Congress. He's put no real energy into any of the bipartisanship or deal-making that we have usually associated with the office. Even if you were unsuccessful, presidents had to at least make a shot or make a go of trying to forge bipartisan compromise. To the extent that there's been bipartisan achievement in his administration has mostly been in areas where he's not been participating.

"… And I should say, finally, this isn't to say he has not been successful for those that brought him. He has been among the most successful, and you could argue the most successful Republican president. Cutting taxes, cutting regulations, working on behalf of those who are against abortion rights, increasing defense spending, getting lots of judges through the system, and also just bedeviling liberals, which has been something all of which conservatives have been looking forward to in a Republican president. But that also means he has abdicated the role of the president as the president of the entire country, as opposed to just the president of his political base."

What do we risk if we don't think seriously about how to fix this problem of the presidency being too big and too complex for one person to take on?

John Dickerson: “If we don't think about the presidency, we risk constantly being disappointed. And to the extent we're disappointed with the avenues through which we make public change in America, we turn to other methods, which is, you know, revolution, which is extreme actions taken. And that's the whole reason we form a government in the first place, was to keep those things from happening. We also risk having one portion of the country constantly feeling like it's being shut out from the American dream because they feel like the system is rigged against them.

"And we miss and we risk correctly arranging power in the American system to address the biggest challenges of our lives. I mean, the book was finished before our current sets of challenges. But the whole point was basically the presidency is a job of dealing with big, high stakes emergency things that can hit you out of nowhere. And we're dealing with three of them at the moment. Now, not all of them were out of nowhere. But the fact is, if we don't have a system for handling these things, it leads to basically greater suffering and unhappiness on part of fellow Americans.”

What's top on your list for how to work towards fixing the presidency?

John Dickerson: “Humility is one of the biggest things, which is, you know, we can't snap our fingers and fix this. I think one of the things is to not focus on the presidency as much as we do. Put more pressure on Congress, put more pressure on governors and local officials to do the things that we want done for our lives. So keep the presidential tasks narrow and then focus on where the failures are. It's not just a failure of willpower sometimes on a presidency. It may be a failure of the fact that they don't know how to build a management team to get the job done. And if that turns out to be a really important part of the job, then maybe we should talk about that in campaigns in some fashion. And so basically, it's changing our expectations for what we think candidates should be skilled at so that they have a chance when they get in the job.

"And that means things like their ability to set priorities, their ability to build a management team, all of which I go into in the book, which is based on this idea that I asked all my interview subjects, which was, 'What would you want if you were doing a job interview for the job?' And then the final piece is just instead of thinking about attributes of a presidency as kind of all or nothing — instead of having a binary view about the skills of a president — recognize some gradations in a president's skills. And so we have a little bit more complex understanding of what the job takes. And the reason that's important is we don't just immediately throw out presidents who don't succeed in exactly the way we want them to. We recognize that it's a little bit more complex, which leads to maybe less disappointment.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency" by John Dickerson

Excerpt from THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD: The American Presidency by John Dickerson © 2020. Published by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Random House. All rights reserved.

CBS Sunday Morning: "John Dickerson on the example Ike set for 'The Hardest Job in the World'" — "President Dwight Eisenhower had a particular way of doing things."

The Atlantic: "What Trump Should Have Learned From His Predecessors" — "Donald Trump should have seen the coronavirus pandemic coming."

Washington Post: "The president as parent — consoler, protector and, sometimes, failure" — "Throughout our history, presidents have played a parental role for our large, diverse nation."

CBS Sunday Morning: "Book excerpt: John Dickerson's 'The Hardest Job In the World'" — "On election night 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to his New York townhouse."

Washington Post: "Opinion: The ultimate test of presidential character is restraint" — "When one elects a president, character matters above all, or at least should."

This program aired on July 9, 2020.


Adam Waller Freelance Producer
Adam Waller is a freelance producer for On Point.


Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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