October 18, 2017, 05:00 PM - 07:00 PM

05:00 PM

Main 212

The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office
October 18, 2017, 05:00 PM - 07:00 PM
The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office

On Wednesday, October 18, 2017, the Robert Strauss Center, in partnership with the Clements Center for National Security, hosted Dr. Jeremi Suri for a talk on his new book "The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office." This event was free and open to the public.

Dr. Jeremi Suri, Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar and the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, held a standing-room-only lecture at UT Austin on October 18, 2017, to announce his new book, “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” Dr. Suri’s book tracks the evolution of the presidency, from an institution left relatively undefined by the Founding Fathers, to a role that Suri argues no one person can perform successfully.

Suri is both an historian and political scientist. During his lecture, Suri took the audience on a historical journey of presidents he argues changed the meaning of the presidency, starting with George Washington. The Founding Fathers wanted a king, but not a monarchy. Suri argued that the first presidents followed Washington’s example of father figure to the nation. For fifty years, the president was first and foremost a unifying figure.

The second phase of the presidency, according to Suri, began with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln inserted himself into economic policy as the “first CEO” of the United States. His background as a corporate lawyer helped him craft a vision for the country based on liberalism and trade: “free labor, free soil, and free men.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in a new, “tragic” role according to Suri. While FDR led as both a unifying figure and CEO, he was also a healer to the country and the world. FDR’s New Deal policies and fireside chats saved American livelihoods, but they also created a demand worldwide for relief that the president could not fulfill. According to Suri, the “perpetual crisis mode,” we see today began with FDR.

The perpetual crisis mode is visible in presidential calendars, which Suri analyzed for his research. Whereas Theodore Roosevelt had time to think and vision for the future, John F. Kennedy could barely keep up with the number of meetings where Suri said Kennedy would sometimes be responsible for deciding whether to drop a nuclear bomb.

Suri closed with reflections on where the presidency is now and options for a path forward. Most large democracies do not vest as much power in the presidency as in the United States, and Suri argues that is because there is too much responsibility for one person. Pressing and immediate needs make it impossible for a United States president to successfully plan for the future. In the short-term, decisions that seem rational are cumulatively irrational in the long-term, and according to Suri, this is true of many institutions.

Suri’s book argues for more public dialogue about the presidency. “It’s not just about the driver, but about the machinery itself,” Suri said. He encouraged students and audience members to choose political leaders who talk about the structure of our institutions. He spoke to the need for facts from independent organizations inside the government, such as the Government Accountability Office, as well as universities. Finally, Suri suggested that in the future, the United States may fundamentally change the presidency by splitting it into two or more offices, like a major company or democracies like India and Germany.