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The Impossibility Of The Presidency

The Oval Office as seen in August 2010. (J.Scott Applewhite/AP)
The Oval Office as seen in August 2010. (J.Scott Applewhite/AP)

With David Folkenflik 

How the presidency became impossible—we’ll talk to John Dickerson about why he thinks the job is simply too much for anyone.


John Dickerson, co-anchor of CBS This Morning and contributing editor to The Atlantic. (@jdickerson)

Show Highlights:

On The Job’s Complexity

“Obviously it’s not so impossible that nobody can do it, because we have somebody who’s in the job. So the question then is, how to run it better.

Complex systems are bedeviled by these possible catastrophic failures. Because when things are complex, there are lots of domino effects. In other words, little problems can grow to be big problems very quickly… that’s what a presidency is like. And so you have to get a handle on it.

The reason it’s such a problem for a president is that everybody comes to the president. The more people you have in an executive branch, the more who want to see the president and get in front of him.

That’s what it comes down to in the day-to-day process: is that there are just more human bodies in front of the president wanting more things and there are still so many hours in the day.”

On Our Expectations Of The President

“[During crises] we expect presidents to do one of two things: either to rush into the moment and help us make sense of it, help bring a country together. Help apportion the reaction in a way that defuses some of the fear, anger, worry, concern. If they can’t do that, we expect them not to rile it up. And certainly, [Trump’s] comments about the people ‘on both sides,’… as Senator Scott — in his conversation with the president about those remarks, and also about the Civil War — said, there are no two sides in this debate. And if you’re over-debating that, you’re really far away from what the central public moment calls for.”

On The Current Presidency

“This is an extraordinary presidency. And part of what the piece [in The Atlantic] is saying, is that you have the extraordinary events of this president, which have nothing to do with the presidency. These are special, unique circumstances for this president. But there’s also the way in which he participates in his office that illuminates a lot of these challenges with the presidency.

Thinking only about presidents and presidencies as the same thing is a kind of presentism and momentary thinking… Unless you pull those two things apart, you just repeat the same mistakes over and over again.”

From The Reading List:

The Atlantic: “The Hardest Job in the World — What if the problem isn’t the president—it’s the presidency?” — “The emotional burden of these responsibilities is almost unfathomable. The president must endure the relentless scrutiny of the digital age. He must console the widow of a soldier he sent into combat one moment, and welcome a championship-winning NCAA volleyball team to the White House the next. He must set a legislative agenda for an often feckless Congress, navigating a partisan divide as wide as any in modern American history. He must live with the paradox that he is the most powerful man in the world, yet is powerless to achieve many of his goals—thwarted by Congress, the courts, or the enormous bureaucracy he sometimes only nominally controls. ‘In the presidency there is the illusion of being in charge,’ George W. Bush’s former chief of staff Joshua Bolten told me, ‘but all presidents must accept that in many realms they are not.’

Even Trump, not one to readily admit a mistake, has acknowledged that he underestimated the difficulty of the job. ‘I thought it would be easier,’ he told Reuters 100 days into his term. A blunt admission—and one much mocked by his critics—but one every president eventually makes. Lyndon Johnson made the point in his earthy way: ‘The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival,’ he said. ‘Once he’d paid his dime and got inside the tent: It ain’t exactly as it was advertised.'”

An unprepared president. An uncertain time. Existential threats from abroad. Disasters at home. Tragedies all over. Forget Donald Trump for a moment – if you can. In a new cover story for the Atlantic magazine, John Dickerson casts a wary eye on all the challenges and responsibilities expected of an American president and arrives at a sobering question.

This hour, On Point: What happens if the problem isn’t the president, but the presidency?

David Folkenflik

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