The major problem is that we look to the president for too much. We basically run all of our national questions through the presidency. We’ve turned the president into the largest political celebrity, and maybe the largest celebrity, in the country. And we’ve stopped looking to the Congress for the work that it should be doing instead of, or at least in concert with, the president. Part of the tension of the job should be that we expect more than it can deliver. Because that’s what calls presidents to up their game. When Lyndon Johnson responds to Bloody Sunday, he sees a disconnect between the country he sees on TV and its greatest and highest ideals — ideals that it fell short of in the minute it was creating its founding document in the Constitution. These demands have gotten disconnected from what’s possible in the office. And this gets exacerbated every time we have an election because we get our hopes up. And then they’re dashed again. Part of it is, they’re dashed by the weakness of the people we elected, but part is also we misunderstand and hamstring the office in so many different ways that makes it impossible to meet our expectations. We sort of embed future cynicism in the way we run our campaigns because we expect ever more from the next president.
The president is a job of seriously high stakes in which, by the time you get hit by a surprise, high-stakes event, it’s too late to catch up. You need to have thought about the job, thought about your country, thought about the obligations of public service, seriously. And acted on those beliefs long before they hit. Because when they hit, if you’re not ready, you’re going to be in deep trouble. One of the strongest things I came away from this book with was thinking about [the presidency] more as an organization and less as a single human being. So maybe we want to think through what the next president is going to do: Who are they going to name to the head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, and what is that person’s mandate going to be? That’s different than the way we normally think of a presidency.
Do you think this year’s primaries might have produced different candidates had we gone through the pandemic and recent examples of police brutality sooner?
I don’t think on the Republican side it would have changed anything because the president has so locked himself into the Republican Party, and vice versa. And, as we’ve seen, no significant politician, with basically one or two exceptions, wants to do anything to upset the Trump base. But on the Democratic side, there are two questions, really. On the one hand, covid presents a classic management and organizational challenge for anybody: Do you understand how government works? Can you prepare for it? And then focus and marshal your horses once the disaster hits. A kind of emergency response that requires somebody who knows how Washington works, how the bureaucracy works, to be able to manage that kind of a surprise. Same is true with foreign policy.
But on values and equality and hearing the agony of the protesters in the streets, and moving Washington to answer that agony, or at least hear it — that certainly would have overtaken the Democratic primary. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there needs to be an outsider. Lyndon Johnson did a great deal for race in America, and he was the most Washington-centered politician, who also had an awful record on race earlier in his career. But in our current world, it definitely would have changed the nature of the conversation and exacerbated some of the challenges that bedeviled Biden at the beginning of his race for the nomination.
A number of scholars and analysts I’ve spoken with recently are talking about a slide toward fascism with this administration and seeing the upcoming election as a pivotal moment in determining the country’s trajectory. Your view seems to be much more measured: tempering expectations around the presidency, finding the right person. What do you make of that claim?
Well, I think we’ve seen a long list of standards and norms of the office and of behavior that have been ignored by the president and the people that work for him. In the American system, there’s really one penalty, which is that you get voted out of office. Impeachment is such a high bar in today’s polarized world that that’s not really even an effective check. We definitely have seen the system not checking the president in terms of congressional oversight.
And so we’ve seen in the press response really a highlighting of a lot of these challenges to the traditional role of the presidency, which is a check on authoritarianism, exposing a lot of the ways in which the president has exceeded the power of his office and also refused to embrace the power of his office. He has embraced, on the one hand, authoritarianism in the way he behaves, but on his response to covid-19, he has actually shrunk the presidential response. But people have to listen, and then vote accordingly if they think that’s the way the president’s going. So we’ll have to see. With the firing of the inspectors general, the repeated behavior on behalf of the president’s interests by the Justice Department — all of those things are warning signs. But we’re not there yet.
And again, there’s a way the system can respond. If Donald Trump loses the election by a huge amount, the country will have rendered a verdict on how much he’s pushed the office — and therefore, the slide that some people see toward authoritarianism will have been checked by the system. And then you’d have to say, in the end, that the system worked.
If it’s true that American presidencies tend to sort of go back and forth, which is to say that the deficiencies of one president are answered for by the attributes the succeeding president has, then you could imagine a president — whether it’s Joe Biden or somebody else who comes along in four more years — would be the antithesis of the incumbent. And so, the norms all across the board — what it means to be presidential — you could see those norms coming back even more strongly because everybody’s been reminded why they’re important.
What president do you most admire, and why?
It’s such a tricky thing. It just is a cliche, because it’s basically FDR or Lincoln. And I guess the reason I say it’s so tricky is because most presidents don’t get the chance to even be tested at that level. So they don’t achieve greatness, but they can be admirable within the sphere of challenges that they’ve been presented with. I mean, Lincoln faced such carnage and suffering, but was able to change in the course of his life and thinking. For a person to name the Cabinet that he did was such a huge, high-risk move. To evolve as he did on slavery. Lincoln just overwhelms me in his operational skill — but then, also the empathy and the humanity of the things that he wrote and the way that he thought. I mean, his second inaugural address, while the Confederates are in town trying to kill him, to talk about bringing the country back together just takes an amazing kind of understanding, and expansive worldview.
Do you think he’s somebody that we would elect today?
It’s a great question. Two things: Would we elect him? And then, if we elected him, would we allow him to change as much as he changed in office without hounding him out for being, you know, a person of unfixed views.
And the final thing that’s tricky about Lincoln is my argument for [needing] some expertise, some experience: Lincoln didn’t have much of it. My only out, which is not a satisfying one, is, well, there was only one Abe Lincoln. In other words, we got lucky with Lincoln. Let’s not build a system that hopes [for] that from everybody who comes along without much of a résumé. He ended up having the attributes necessary for the job. The ability to build a team and take the risks he did required an incredible temperament and sense of doing the right thing and not the self-preserving thing. Because those guys could have eaten him for lunch. And so he had to basically take a gamble. And, wow, that takes a lot of guts, tolerance for risk, tolerance for uncertainty. He had both this deep reservoir of human emotion and yet was able to deal with moments of uncertainty.
If the two people vying for the presidency this fall can learn something from the book, what is the most important thing they take from it?
That the president is a job of high-stakes surprises that come out of nowhere. So you better spend a lot of time on the important, but not urgent. Which is to say, preparing your team, preparing for the crisis that you don’t even know about yet. Because if you build a good team to handle a crisis, that team will work in non-crisis situations and then will make you a more effective president.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.