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

The time is nigh, fellow citizens. This Tuesday, we shall exercise our franchise and elect a president. Many have made their respective choice already via absentee or mail-in voting, so tabulating the results among the 50 states could require some collective patience. Regardless, we do know that come January 20th, either Joseph R. Biden or Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office at noon, thus bestowing the privilege to wield the powers vested under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Always a weighty event, now is a fine time to explore the office of the presidency.
This is what John Dickerson tackles in The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. Mercifully, Dickerson doesn’t devote much time to what has been explored elsewhere, and for quite some time: that we are in the age of the “imperial presidency,” where the U.S. presidency now brandishes power beyond what the Constitution allows. It’s also known (perhaps somewhat erroneously) as the “unitary executive,” its more legalistic name. (I say “mercifully” because there’s plenty of excellent scholarship on this already.)
If anything, Dickerson addresses evolving presidential powers through anecdotes. For example, William Henry Harrison didn’t offer policy initiatives during his campaign, as he believed that would encroach on congressional prerogative. We now, of course, expect a whole array of presidential proposals, mostly of the domestic variety. However, when it’s realized that so much of the workday is spent addressing voluminous foreign policy matters, a new reality quickly manifests within a newly sworn president. Consider President Kennedy. Soon after taking the oath of office he was made privy to an operation that was already in full planning motion: The Bay of Pigs invasion.
President Eisenhower has received renewed interest in recent years, and Dickerson follows suit. Eisenhower developed a quadrant system where he assigned issues an importance level, Q1 housing the most urgent. He was prescient enough to realize that Q1 could swallow up a presidency; so the challenge was to ensure that the urgent didn’t crowd out other initiatives he wanted to achieve. (And did you know that Ike had such a bad temper White House staff referred to him, just among themselves no doubt, as “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang”? Fully aware of his temper, Ike wrote in his journal, “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly.”)
Dickerson doesn’t share such narratives as mere historical asides. He’s attempting to edify the reader on how our previous presidents led the executive and how historical events were met and managed by presidents, which in turn changed the presidency. Prime example number one is FDR’s initiated policies during the Great Depression. A lesser known example is that presidents were once not expected to be “on the scene” when natural disasters struck. LBJ changed that in 1965 after a hurricane devastated New Orleans. When his motorcade came across a 9th Ward high school sheltering displaced residents, LBJ addressed them: “I’m your president and I’m here to help you.”
Dickerson structured the book so that you can essentially pick any section and begin reading, as most anecdotes last only a handful of pages. But this is also the book’s greatest weakness. Just when you think you found a theme, we’re off to another president of another era, over and over again. Plus, there are too many plodding sentences telling us what a president should strive to accomplish. While I think Dickerson is correct on the merits, stylistically more than a few sentences made me wince. Dickerson was once a political reporter for Slate and Time. He’s a television reporter now, so maybe that’s why his writing has taken on a folksy sheen, where metaphors are freely mixed.
Still, the book certainly works well in spots. Dickerson seemingly knew that no U.S. political history book would be complete without revisiting the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The framers understood that the challenge was to establish a limited federal government that was still vigorous enough to function. While the will of the people manifests through elected representatives, their passions must be checked. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary.” Thus the separation of powers: a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary. They knew that unscrupulous officeholders could be elected. What they hoped was that the institutions would survive.
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with what the founders would think of the balance of power we have now. But I will say that they placed Congress under Article I of the Constitution for a reason. There are many factors that have led to waning congressional relevance (with gerrymandering leading the way), but it would be intriguing to know how the founders would process the practice of outsourcing legislation to the executive branch, where an executive order is decreed only for it to be summarily ended by the next president.
Dickerson uses his conclusion to offer modest remedies to the political realities we have now. I appreciate the effort, but I’m dubious. Dickerson acknowledges that there’s no longer an environment where a president and a ranking member of the opposing party will sit in a room and compromise à la President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill. These two men were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, so they certainly argued. But when one crossed the line with a press comment, the other was called and offered an apology. They agreed on little, but they knew that governing such a large, heterogeneous country meant compromising so that there was working legislation to address complex problems. (Even President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich met privately to discuss legislation.) Anyway, yes, we should consider how to better our outsized presidency, as Dickerson proposes. But just as the political landscape we live in today resulted from accretion, so also is the hope for a return to a point where a moderating spirit between the two political parties is more rule than exception.

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