The Presidency: The Hardest Job in the World

I. A Broken Office

Donald Trump often appears to be a president in rebellion against his office. A president, we have come to expect, hastens to the scene of a natural disaster to comfort the afflicted. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, President Trump arrived tardily and behaved unseriously, tossing rolls of paper towels at storm-battered residents as if he were trying to drain three-point shots.

We have come to expect that when the national fabric rends, the president will administer needle and thread, or at least reach for the sewing box of unity. After white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” President Trump’s instinct was to emphasize that there were good people among the neo-Nazis.

We expect presidents to be deal makers. Even when the opposition has calcified, they are supposed to drink and dine with the other side and find a bipartisan solution. Trump promised that his decades in the real-estate business would make him an especially able negotiator, but on health care, taxes, and immigration, he hasn’t much bothered to trade horses with Democratic lawmakers. Not even Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia—up for reelection in a state Trump won easily—was seriously approached as a negotiating partner.

To his critics, Trump’s detours from the expectations of his office prove he is unfit to inhabit it. Or they demonstrate his hypocrisy: The man who now ignores the traditional responsibilities of the job was once perhaps the nation’s foremost presidential scold, regularly criticizing his predecessors when they responded to a disaster inadequately or played too much golf or couldn’t make a deal. Trump even suggested that Barack Obama’s manner of descending the stairs of Air Force One was unpresidential.

To his critics, Trump’s detours from the expectations of his office prove he is unfit to inhabit it. Or they demonstrate his hypocrisy: The man who now ignores the traditional responsibilities of the job was once perhaps the nation’s foremost presidential scold, regularly criticizing his predecessors when they responded to a disaster inadequately or played too much golf or couldn’t make a deal. Trump even suggested that Barack Obama’s manner of descending the stairs of Air Force One was unpresidential.

No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens.

Members of maga nation scoff at the president’s detractors, and bask in the glow of the burning norms. Why should Trump throw all his energy and political capital into producing quick results in Puerto Rico when the island’s poor planning and weak infrastructure have made success impossible? Why should he bow before Democrats who will never work with him anyway? Trump’s backers see him as a new kind of president, unburdened by political correctness and unconstrained by the old rules of Beltway deal making. He doesn’t let niceties get in the way of taking care of business.

The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.

Even the role of commander in chief, already one of the weightiest presidential responsibilities, has grown rapidly in its demands. National security is today threatened less by slow-moving armies than by stateless terror groups who might weaponize a rented truck and by rogue states who might weaponize an email. Rare is the day when one or more of these enemies don’t present an imminent danger requiring the president’s attention. “The modern presidency has gotten out of control,” Leon Panetta, who has served past presidents as the White House chief of staff, the secretary of defense, and the director of the CIA, told me recently. “Presidents are caught in a crisis-by-crisis response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle” on the office.

The growth of presidential power is not new. When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published The Imperial Presidency, in 1973, the term was already at least 10 years in use. But the office hasn’t just grown in power; it’s grown in scope, complexity, degree of difficulty. Each time a president has added to the job description, a new expectation has conveyed, like the Oval Office furniture, to the next man in line. A president must now be able to jolt the economy like Franklin Roosevelt, tame Congress like Lyndon Johnson, comfort the nation like Ronald Reagan.

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.”

President Trump is tackling some of the challenges of the office. He has tallied up partisan victories: cutting taxes, appointing conservative jurists, and slashing regulations. He has also shed responsibilities in a job that traditionally only accumulates them, neglecting allies, his own employees, and even the oldest presidential aspiration, telling the truth.

Whatever you think of him, Trump is rewiring the presidency—or perhaps more accurately, dismantling the machine and flinging the parts onto the White House lawn. Given Trump’s priorities and attention span, it may fall to his successor to put it back together. But you might be grateful to him for demonstrating, in his inimitable way, the extent to which the machine has become a wheezing and jerry-rigged contraption badly in need of repair. Or, if you can’t bring yourself to be grateful, you might consider this: The flaws in the presidency also made a President Donald Trump possible—he was an emergency solution to the problems that had tripped up his more conventional predecessors.

Either way, until we fix the office, presidents will continue to be frustrated by its demands, and Americans will continue to be disappointed in their leader. We will enter another presidential-campaign season desperate for a good outcome, but unprepared to choose someone who can reset the terms of success.

Over the past year, I’ve conducted interviews with political scientists, historians, dozens of men and women who have worked in the West Wing under presidents of both parties, and some of the men who had the often unenviable job of sitting behind the Resolute Desk. What they described is an office in dire condition: overburdened, unrelenting in its demands, and unlike anything the Founders intended when they designed the role 230 years ago.

Before his inauguration, Barack Obama discussed the office he was about to assume with his predecessor, George W. Bush. “Ultimately, regardless of the day-to-day news cycles and the noise, the American people need their president to succeed,” Bush told him. Americans still need their president to succeed. But the presidency has set him up for failure.

II. An Ever-Expanding Job Description

On April 8, 1938, more than 100 demonstrators dressed as Paul Revere marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. Some carried signs that read we don’t want a dictator. They were protesting the Reorganization Act, the first major modification of the executive branch since the presidency was created, in 1787. The legislation was an outgrowth of the Brownlow Committee, which Franklin Roosevelt had commissioned to study the presidency and update it for modern times. The conclusion from the final report: “The president needs help.”

Roosevelt responded by requesting a handful of personal aides and a reorganization of his Cabinet departments. “The president’s task has become impossible for me or any other man,” he said. Roosevelt’s predecessor and archrival, Herbert Hoover, supported him in the request.

Congress and the public, however, objected. In an April 1938 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of the country thought the president should have more power. Three hundred thirty thousand Americans sent telegrams to members of Congress denouncing “one-man rule.”

The Democratic majorities in Congress denied the Democratic president’s plea for help—a rebuke nearly impossible to imagine today. In a fireside chat, Roosevelt promised to work to defeat in the 1938 election any Democrat who had blocked him. He failed badly; all but one candidate he backed lost. After a year of fighting, Congress finally granted the president some additional manpower. To dispatch the duties of his office, he would now be allowed six assistants and given the power to reorganize the executive branch within certain limits. Congress reserved the right to veto any of the president’s plans for further modifications.

The emergencies of the Great Depression and, later, World War II gave Roosevelt more leverage with Congress, and the gains he made for the executive branch not only increased its power but provided a blueprint for his successors to do so further. In the 80 years since Roosevelt got his six additional men, the executive branch has steadily increased in size and power; Congress and the public have grumbled plenty about power grabs by presidents from the other party, but offered little resistance of the type witnessed on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1938. “Congress chose to abdicate by choosing not to govern,” the NYU public-service professor Paul Light says. “It has totally acquiesced to the White House,” enabling its own diminishment.

The Congress-centered government of the Framers’ conception has thus shifted to one dominated by the executive. Today, about 400 people work inside the White House, in jobs from national-security adviser to public liaison to special assistant for financial policy. Two thousand more work in the Executive Office of the President. In 1940, the civilian agencies of the federal government employed 443,000 people. They now employ three times that number. Roosevelt’s vice president and Cabinet of 10 could join him for a group picture behind his Oval Office desk. The 24 members of the Trump administration with Cabinet rank have to be photographed from across the room to fit in the camera frame.

A White House once quaintly understaffed is now overstaffed, which leads to laborious decision making and palace intrigue. Even in administrations less chaotic than Trump’s, traffic jams at the Oval Office door are routine. “The guys around the president want to show their stuff. They want him to look at myprogram, look at my issue,” says Joseph Califano Jr., who served as the chief domestic-policy adviser under Johnson and also as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education, and welfare. “So many issues get to the president’s throat that shouldn’t really get there”—issues “better left down in the bureaucracy to resolve.” Aides who don’t get the attention they want gripe, then leak. The insatiable, never-resting media take those leaks and turn them into new headaches for the West Wing team.

Even so, you might think that extra manpower would be a boon to an overextended president. But unlike a chief executive in the corporate world, a president can’t delegate. Some, such as Carter, have tried. It didn’t end well. In July 1979, he held a Cabinet meeting that was more like the Red Wedding. He had come to believe that the people he’d appointed were being disloyal and “not working for [him], but for themselves.” Some pushed back, saying they were simply advocating for their policy positions. But the press has a way of describing debate as discord. Carter concluded that because a president is on the hook for every decision his administration makes, decisions of any import must be made not by the Cabinet secretaries but in the White House, where the president’s political team can vet them. So he brought more decision making into the West Wing—lengthening the line at the Oval Office door, and shortening everyone’s temper. “You’re lucky you were fired,” a friend told Califano, a victim of the bloodletting. “You’d have never been able to stand being strangled by the White House staff.”

Dwight eisenhower was a life-hacker. During his military career, he devised systems that made him more efficient. After he became president, he applied his methods to the already vast management challenge. When Ike first entered the executive mansion, the story goes, an usher handed the new president a letter. “Never bring me a sealed envelope!” he said. Nothing, he explained, should come to him without first being screened to see whether it really merited his attention.

Eisenhower sorted priorities through a four-quadrant decision matrix that is still a staple of time-management books. It was based on his maxim “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Sage advice, but antique for any president trying to manage the office after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Cold War presidents monitored slow-moving events that had flashes of urgency. Now the stakes are just as high, but the threats are more numerous and fast-moving. From North Korea alone, the president faces both Cold War–style nuclear devastation and cyberwar mayhem. Michael Morell, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA who briefed the previous four presidents, told me: “There have never been more threats than there are today.”

Presidents now start their day with the President’s Daily Brief, an intelligence assessment of the threats facing America. How the PDB is delivered changes with each president. Early in his term, Trump reportedly requested a verbal digest of the brief. During the Obama years, the PDB was wrapped in a stiff leather binder and looked like the guest book at a country club. Inside was a grim iPad containing all the possible ways the president could fail at his most essential role. Satellite photos tracked terrorists’ movements, and pictures of failed laptop bombs demonstrated the pace of awful innovation. At the end of the briefing with intelligence officials, a president might be asked whether a specific person should be killed, or whether some mother’s son should be sent on a secret raid from which he might not return.

John F. Kennedy requested that his intelligence briefing be small enough to fit in his pocket. Since 2005, the PDB has been produced by an entirely new entity in the executive branch, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which itself includes several intelligence agencies founded since Kennedy’s era, among them the vast Department of Homeland Security.

Monitoring even small threats can take up an entire day. “My definition of a good day was when more than half of the things on my schedule were things I planned versus things that were forced on me,” says Jeh Johnson, who served Obama as homeland-security secretary. An acute example: In June 2016, Johnson planned to travel to China to discuss the long-term threat from cyberattacks. Hours before takeoff, he was forced to cancel the trip so he could monitor developments after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

“The urgent should not crowd out the important,” says Lisa Monaco, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. “But sometimes you don’t get to the important. Your day is spent just trying to prioritize the urgent. Which urgent first?”

One of George W. Bush’s staffers remembers the president’s basic conclusion about the attacks of 9/11: “ ‘My fundamental job was to protect the American people, and I didn’t do it.’ ” After the attacks, then–CIA Director George Tenet added a threat matrix to the president’s morning briefing that delineated all possible threats of terrorist activity. Bush wanted to go through every one. “After 9/11, we woke up every day behind,” says Bush’s communications director Dan Bartlett. “Every day was catch-up day.”

Each administration worries that it might somehow slip and let an attack through. This leads to a lot of make-work and ass-covering, impediments to managing any organization. In his book The Test of Our Times, Tom Ridge, the first homeland-security director, recalled such an episode. Prior to the 2004 U.S. elections, Osama bin Laden released a taunting videotape. Ridge said some Cabinet officials wanted to raise the nation’s threat level to show that the administration was being vigilant, even though they had no new evidence of a specific threat. “Is this about security or politics?” he asked himself.

After weighing matters of life and death at the appointed hour, the president can expect to be interrupted later in the day by unanticipated chaos. When Lisa Monaco was new on the job, she got a taste of the pace of things: One Monday in April 2013, the Boston Marathon was interrupted by horrific bombings, setting off a manhunt that paralyzed the entire metropolitan area. The next day, an envelope addressed to a member of Congress containing the toxin ricin was discovered. On Wednesday, an explosion destroyed a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

One national-security official, describing the pace of events during the Obama years, said it was a relief when crashed, in 2013. It meant that a different kind of crisis had interrupted the permanent cycle of security management in the age of terror. The threat of attack still loomed, but with attention elsewhere the requirement to participate in homeland-security theater for a nervous public was, momentarily, diminished.

When disaster does strike—whether the work of an enemy or an act of God—the theatrical role presidents play is amplified. It’s not enough to monitor or even manage the federal government’s response. He has to dash to the scene. We now expect the president to be a first responder, too.

So ingrained is this expectation that we forget how recently it took hold. In 1955, a number of strong storms battered the United States, but Eisenhower was barely mentioned in the newspaper stories about Hurricanes Connie, Diane, or Ione. That hurricane season was then the costliest on record, but there are no pictures of the former Allied Commander pointing at maps or receiving furrowed-brow briefings from meteorologists. When some of the storms hit, Ike was on vacation. His absence was not the subject of endless concerned punditry, as it would be today. “We get a little more sleep around Washington,” Vice President Richard Nixon told a reporter writing a whimsical piece about the president’s time off during one of the storms. “He has the ungodly habit of getting up early.”

Eisenhower wasn’t callous. Local governments, civil-defense forces, and the Red Cross were supposed to stack the sandbags and distribute relief when a storm hit. Upsetting that division of duties, the president believed, would jeopardize core American values. “I regard this as one of the great real disasters that threatens to engulf us, when we are unready as a nation, as a people, to meet personal disaster by our own cheerful giving,” Ike said in 1957. “Part of the reason is this misunderstanding that government is taking the place even of rescuing the person, the individual, and the family from his natural disasters.”

Lyndon Johnson believed in a stronger connection between the people and their president—a belief that would expand the role for all the presidents that have come since. In September 1965, after Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, Johnson visited the masses huddled in the city’s George Washington Elementary School. “This is your president,” he declared. “I am here to help you.” Johnson spoke of the duties of the national family. “In times of distress,” he told disaster officials, “it’s necessary that all the members of the family get together and lay aside any individual problems they have or any personal grievances and try to take care of the sick mother, and we’ve got a sick mother on our hands.”

After visiting victims of the storm, Johnson leaped into action, coordinating local forces and pushing Congress to fund relief. The Washington Post rewarded Johnson with the headline “LBJ Sees Betsy Toll in Hundreds: Assumes Charge of Day and Night Relief Operations.” A president lives for that kind of press.

Rushing to the people’s aid suited Johnson’s politics. The trip to New Orleans was a Great Society house call, a dose of attention that mirrored the president’s legislative agenda aimed at helping the needy. It was also a bit of self-promotion well suited to the times. Families across the country were watching the drama of the storm unfold on the news during the dinner hour. Networks binged on images of Americans waist-deep in water, fishing their heirlooms from ruined living rooms. Television, according to Gareth Davies, an American-history professor at Oxford University who has studied the evolution of the president as first responder, greatly accelerated the demand for the president to appear front and center.

When Johnson visited Indiana to tour tornado damage, a skeptical columnist writing for the South Bend Tribune wondered why a president should interrupt people trying to put their lives back together. The author then had a revelation, praising Johnson for “a demonstration of personal Presidential concern.” He continued: “The Presidential visit briefly transforms the institution into a symbol, a person to be seen and spoken to,” providing evidence to victims that “somebody cares,” thereby raising their “distressed spirits.”

Popular expectations of the presidency were changing, and not just when a storm hit. The bigger the federal government became, the more a president had to act as a warming face of that distant behemoth—and its avatar on TV. “In the ’60s, expectations exploded,” says Sidney Milkis, a political scientist and Miller Center fellow at the University of Virginia. “We’ve become a presidency-obsessed democracy.” A key question, Milkis says, is “whether 300 million people can expect so much from one individual and still consider themselves involved in something that can be described as self-government.”

The buck stops here was not supposed to mean the president is responsible for everything that happens in the executive branch.

Disaster response is by now such a prerequisite that if a president doesn’t act—and isn’t seen acting—it can wreck his presidency. “It used to be that presidents were advised to let the fema director and governor handle disaster response,” says Andy Card, who managed the Hurricane Andrew response for George H. W. Bush, in August 1992, and served as George W. Bush’s chief of staff during Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. “Now the expectation is that if a president is not talking about it all the time, he is asleep at the switch, or Marie Antoinette.”

George W. Bush’s presidency never really recovered from the photograph of him looking down from Air Force One on the vast area harmed by Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, when an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore-drilling platform led to 87 days of oil belching into the Gulf of Mexico, critics labeled it “Obama’s Katrina.” The typical critique was summed up by the headline on a Peggy Noonan column in The Wall Street Journal: “He Was Supposed to Be Competent.”

Eisenhower-esque detachment was no longer viable. Amid crashing favorability ratings, Obama interrupted his own vacation to tour abandoned, oil-slicked beaches. “I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis,” he said. “I am the president, and the buck stops with me.”

That phrase—a succinct expression of presidential obligations—is like the presidency itself: It has spilled out of its original container. When Harry Truman placed a sign on his desk reading the buck stops here, it meant that some decisions, only the president can make. It did not mean that the president is responsible—and therefore to blame—for everything that happens in the executive branch, much less the nation.

Lyndon johnson made the most of the new, televised presidency, but the co-dependency with the cameras started with his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. In 1960, Kennedy, a young senator and candidate for president, filmed television ads that showed him shaking hands with miners in West Virginia before they dropped down 500 feet to start their eight-hour shift. Kennedy wasn’t just cutting a dashing figure to be beamed into living rooms; he was making an argument about presidential campaigns. “I believe that any Democratic aspirant to this important nomination should be willing to submit to the voters his views, record, and competence in a series of primary contests,” Kennedy had said when he’d announced his campaign. Only after such a primary contest, he’d argued, could the candidate understand the concerns of the people, and prove his readiness to act on them. An ad the campaign took out in a West Virginia newspaper made Kennedy’s proposition clear: Votes for his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, were shown landing in a garbage can. Votes for Kennedy were shown dropping from the ballot box through the roof of the White House.

Kennedy’s view that candidates should make their case directly to the people may hardly seem controversial by contemporary standards, but it was part of a radical change in the path to the presidency. In designing the office, the Founders worried that the executive would be whipsawed by the passions of the people rather than driven by reason and good character. Because of this fear, the Founders did not want candidates to campaign for the office, believing that stumping for votes would warp their priorities. The electoral process might elevate men who had simply played to the crowd; once in office, such a president might pander to the people rather than instituting sound policy. Without a constant need to court voters, the Founders reasoned, presidents could calmly pursue the best interests of the country.

For a century, the system worked as intended. Candidates “stood” for election, but did not deign to stump for votes at rallies. Men such as Andrew Jackson argued for a closer connection between the people and the president, but the taboo against campaigning was durable. The parties still picked their presidential candidate in the smoke-filled rooms of legend. In the early 20th century, reformers such as Woodrow Wilson asserted that the modern age required presidents to be more responsive to the voters. A president shaped by an election system with voters at the center would not abandon them once in office and would know how to summon what Wilson called “the common meaning of the common voice.”

Kennedy’s successful use of the previously obscure primary system helped to make state-by-state barnstorming the established road to a party nomination and eventually the White House. And just as the Founders had surmised, prolonged exposure to the people had a powerful effect. Kennedy’s first executive order increased the amount of food distributed to needy Americans in economically distressed areas, a direct result of his time spent in West Virginia. The votes had gone right to the White House.

If the president thinks too much about the widows he’s making, he might not be able to perform the role of commander in chief.

Looking out for the interests of the poor may sound like an unalloyed good. But party reforms in the last quarter of the 20th century pushed the nominating process further toward the direct election of delegates. This encouraged candidates to make ever more lavish promises and to tout their singular power to deliver on them. “Longer and longer campaigns have contributed to a prolonged bidding war of candidates making more and more promises as to what government will do if they are elected,” says Roger Porter, who served in the Reagan and Ford administrations and now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Primaries encourage candidates to do whatever keeps the crowd in a roar, as Howard Dean explained when looking back on his infamous “scream” after the 2004 Iowa caucuses. “I’d get out there and I would talk about policy and there was no adrenaline rush,” he told FiveThirtyEight. “People kind of went ‘uh-huh, uh-huh,’ and I really wanted that huge charge of being able to crank them all up and to believe in themselves again and get enthusiastic, and I would succumb to that.” Trump took this trend to its logical conclusion, promising voters every beneficial outcome and proclaiming at his convention about the problems that America faced: “I alone can fix it.”

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.

Learn more at The Atlantic

Elana Alipingpolitics