The US president as parent – consoler, protector or, sometimes, failure

Jeremi Suri

THE WASHINGTON POST – Throughout our history, United States (US)presidents have played a parental role for the large, diverse nation.

Recent presidents found their strongest voices as reassuring parents for the country in moments of tragedy. They projected confidence, empathy and hope.

Many citizens feel abandoned today because parental reassurance is completely lacking from our nation’s current leadership.

Of course, the terrible failures of today are not entirely new. Numerous observers have described a deterioration in American national leadership during recent decades, evident in rising public dissatisfaction with government, and politicians in particular.

Some commentators attribute leadership decline to the character of elected officials, and they have many obvious examples. Other writers blame the various constraints on contemporary presidents: Congress, interest groups, the media and the federal bureaucracy – what polemicists derisively call “the deep state”.

John Dickerson takes a third approach, echoing the analysis of current scholars. As a journalist, Dickerson has watched recent presidents closely, and collected many fascinating details about their experiences in office. He has also read into the historical record to find relevant stories from the past. He argued that as the country has grown in size, power and complexity, the presidency has become overburdened with too many responsibilities and expectations. Dickerson quoted Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, who lamented, “The modern presidency has gotten out of control.” Dickerson offers a colourful mosaic of quotations from presidents and close advisers confirming Panetta’s words.

The demands on the nation’s leader continue to multiply with each day, at ever-greater speed. And presidents are held responsible for events they do not control. Every word the president utters is analysed in depth, often with malice. Everyone around the president wanted something from him, making it very difficult to get honest, rigourous advice.

Campaigns only make this problem worse. Dickerson has accompanied many candidates on the hustings, and he describes the pressures the candidates feel to act as superheroes capable of addressing every voter’s needs, while maintaining ideological purity and serving powerful interests. To win, you have to be all things to all people, and you have to make it simple for voters. But the charisma-driven qualities of a strong campaigner run against the organisational acumen and level-headedness necessary for a very complex office. If you try to do everything as president, Dickerson showed, you cannot accomplish anything.

Dickerson offered useful tips for future presidents (and voters) in his conclusion, including more issue-focussed campaigns, lower public expectations, better transition teams and, my favourite, a “balance between immutable beliefs and open-mindedness”.

But how helpful is that? The Hardest Job in the World is heavy on anecdote, but light on analysis. Reading the book is like listening to parents complaining about how hard it is to manage.

The stories are compelling, the reasons are many and the solutions seem trite and impractical. Dickerson gave a cursory gesture to this work, and he offered little original analysis of his own.

And then there is a question of presentation. The Hardest Job in the World often feels like a collection of short television spots.

In almost every chapter the author jumps from anecdotes about earlier presidents to later ones, and then back again. Sometimes, the paragraphs leap centuries in two directions. The sentences contain a barrage of glib phrases and mixed metaphors.

Take page 82 as just one of many examples. In the space of four short paragraphs, Dickerson refers to “Green Lanternism”, “a Tom Clancy novel”, “a barrel roll”, “a well-placed shot from his sidearm” and “magical properties” to describe presidential responsibilities. This prose has a gee-whiz quality, but it sends the reader spinning. What exactly is Dickerson trying to say and what is his evidence?

This raises a larger question about journalists, who are the predominant chroniclers of the presidency. They have a front-row seat, few as close and for as long as Dickerson. But are some journalists too mesmerised by the trappings of power and the larger-than-life personalities that occupy the White House? Are they recounting what they hear and see, but missing the deeper shifts in behaviour and belief?

Dickerson comments repeatedly on how presidents perceive the expectations of their office, yet he never analyses the shifting sources of those expectations in citizens, interest groups, foreign leaders and countless other actors.

Can we really understand the presidency from close snippets alone? Isn’t there a deeper historical context that is crucial to the current crisis of the office? Dickerson’s book tells us about the daily parental struggles of the presidency, but not much more.