Posted by: Dr Churchill | April 24, 2018

What about the President? (Chapter Two)

The role of commander in chief, already one of the weightiest presidential responsibilities, has grown rapidly in its demands.

But 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, like Kennedy’s youthful vigor, Reagan’s nostalgic vision, Trump’s MAGA, are only marginally helpful at best, 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.

Yet, no such school exists for presidents.

There is a transition process.

Yes, there is, 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.

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.

When a president travels, he has his own doctor, security, exercise equipment, and water. It all gets moved around on his airplanes. If the Secret Service thinks the bathroom in a foreign country might cause the president to slip, agents will lay down protective strips to give him traction when he gets out of the tub. Grover Cleveland used to answer his own front door. Now presidents touch door handles only in their private quarters.

Their lives are babyproofed.

At the same time, the American president is constantly subjected to the harshest scrutiny from outside his bubble. This is a long-standing tradition. The New York Times devoted 500 words to Calvin Coolidge’s indigestion — it was the cantaloupe…

The president is the biggest celebrity in the world. Eyes are always watching, ready to imbue a grimace with meaning.

Everyone waves — and everyone expects a wave in return. If the president is close enough, people expect a selfie. Photographers can capture a note about needing a bathroom break that he jots in a meeting, and someone is always at a keyboard ready to make a cultural moment out of a thought that escapes his subconscious.

While emoting at all the appropriate times in all the appropriate ways, a president must also wear masks to hide his intentions—from world leaders, political adversaries, and allies alike. This allows him room to negotiate. Senator Huey Long complained about Franklin Roosevelt: “When I talk to him, he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But [Senator] Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says, ‘Fine!’ to everybody.” New York Governor Al Smith was once asked whether he had gotten a commitment from Roosevelt, and responded, “Did you ever nail a custard pie to a wall?” Roosevelt’s flexibility was considered a great and necessary presidential skill. But a man who wears masks must do a lot of work to keep them from slipping.

Can one person handle all this? In 1955, former President Herbert Hoover completed a review—his second—of executive-branch efficiency and suggested the addition of an administrative vice president to help the overloaded president. (The existing vice president was apparently already too busy.) Hoover’s report was issued a few months before President Eisenhower had his first heart attack. It was the fifth heart attack or stroke to hit a current or former president since the Wilson administration ended, in 1921. This caused the columnist Walter Lippmann to wonder whether the job was too much for one man to bear. Addressing the “intolerable strain” on the president, Lippmann wrote, “The load has become so enormously greater … because of the wars of this century, because of the huge growth of the American population, of the American economy, and of American responsibilities.”

Since then, the weight of the job has grown even heavier. The Souza photograph that marks the day Obama describes as the hardest of his presidency shows him standing with one of the 26 families he comforted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. That day, when a mother broke down, the president handed her a tissue.

Presidents aren’t trained as pastors, but they have been thrust into that role, too. They must comfort the nation in the shadow of tragedy. Woe unto the president who selects the wrong sermon for the occasion. “Now it’s not enough to do it,” Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and top assistant to Reagan, says of performing the pastor role. “You have to do it in the exactly right, sensitive way.” And the better you do it—the more aware you are that a woman beside you needs a Kleenex—the more draining it is on your soul.

Then there are the men and women who might die as a result of the president’s orders. He may soon be called on to console their families, too. An aide to George W. Bush says that when the president was deciding whether to send more troops into Iraq in 2007, at a time when the public and members of his own administration wanted the U.S. to withdraw, he began wearing a mouth guard at night, because he was grinding his teeth so much in his sleep.

Truman said the decision to go to war in Korea had been the hardest decision of his presidency. A letter sent to him by the father of a soldier who died in that war, returning his son’s Purple Heart, suggests just how hard it was:

Mr. Truman,

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.
Truman kept the letter in his desk drawer long after his term ended, a testament to the weight that remained on him even after he left the Oval Office. If a president thinks too much about the widows he’s making or the children who will never know their mother because of his orders, he might not be able to perform the role of commander in chief. Learning to compartmentalize is a necessity for presidents. Some compartments are locked so tight, even the president’s closest advisers never see their contents.

During the final phase of planning the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011, Obama chaired the National Security Council on five occasions. Those five days tell the story of just how quickly a president must switch between his public and private duties. The events that took place immediately before and after those secret bin Laden meetings included: an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya. On April 27, the day before Obama chaired his last National Security Council meeting on the bin Laden raid, his White House released his long-form birth certificate to answer persistent questions about his birthplace raised by the man who would be his successor.

In the two days before the raid itself, Obama flew to Alabama to visit tornado victims and to Florida to visit with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was recuperating from a gunshot wound. On Saturday, April 30, with the operation under way but its outcome uncertain, he attended the White House Correspondents’ dinner, where he had to entertain journalists with a comedy routine. In the joke-writing process, he had removed a quip about bin Laden. His aides were given no hint of why.

The high-stakes military operation made this stretch particularly fraught psychologically, but it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary. Denis McDonough, who served Obama as chief of staff, says the pace was usually such that it became “a rare ability to know what day it was. Every night feels like Tuesday night.”

The relentlessness of the job depletes a president’s powers of restraint, and yet restraint is crucial for wise decision making. “You have to have a high tolerance for pain,” says Jay Carney, one of Obama’s press secretaries. “Sometimes that means letting yourself be misunderstood,” refusing opportunities to score easy debating points in favor of the long view.

At times, an opportunity to get a quick win has to be put off for a later, bigger victory. Focusing on short-term success might please the pundits, but it keeps an administration from doing the hard, obscure, boring work needed to address looming national problems that will be too big to tackle once they become emergencies—the shrinking middle class, the changing climate, the rising health-care costs straining the federal budget. Even the most above-it-all president is continuously tempted to privilege the small over the big and the now over the future.

As Lyndon Johnson put it, sometimes the president is little more than “a jackass in a hailstorm.”
The current president gives in to such temptations. It may be an efficiency—what a relief to give vent to your every moment of pique. But Trump is serving with historically low approval ratings, and even his supporters do not like his constant sniping and complaining about the merest slight. The risk of impulsiveness isn’t just to the president’s own reputation. It also tarnishes the prestige of the office when a president fumes over the latest segment from Fox & Friends.

Successful presidents learn to keep their powder dry, even when doing so might make them seem weak. A president has the power to determine who lives and who dies—sometimes by the thousands—yet he is also frequently powerless, which led the political theorist Hannah Arendt to define the president of the United States as at once the strongest and the weakest of all national leaders. A president must be willing to endure that paradox. As Lyndon Johnson put it, sometimes the president is little more than “a jackass in a hailstorm.”

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Another of the jobs the president could step back from is his hands-on legislative role. It’s not a task the Framers intended, and it makes him a less, not more, effective spur for Congress. “The legislative process sets you up for failure,” Dan Bartlett says. “The playbook is: You start in the House, but that pushes you [away from the center] and then the legislation gets defined that way. If you try to only embrace the ‘process’ and not the actual law, House members get upset. Then it goes to the Senate, and the bill gets more moderate, at which point the president is accused of not having principles.” If the president didn’t have to weigh in at every turn, Congress would be forced to take the legislative lead, relieving pressure on the executive and returning to the model the Founders intended. The president could reserve his political currency until the end of the process, when a lot of the sticky issues have been thought through. He would no longer engage as one of many grubby negotiators, but with a preserved stature as the voice of the nation.

However the duties of the presidency are reorganized, the public and even the president’s political opponents should allow him to relax. There is nothing dumber than the national fixation with the president’s vacation schedule. The presidency never leaves the president. Even when he is on the golf course, he has the work coursing through his head.

Moments of escape are healthy.

Yours,
Dr Churchill

PS:

Presidents have been denied the right to vacations, often by aspirants for their job.

Once again, Eisenhower knew what was right. In a letter to his brother, written before he became president, Eisenhower said he had “thoroughly tested and proved the virtues of a complete and absolute rest” promising that he would take not fewer than 10 weeks of vacation a year in order to hold off the disease of “overwork.”

He came close to achieving his goal with frequent visits to Gettysburg and Denver…

Nixon, by contrast, quizzed his chief of staff about how little sleep he could get and still function. No one wants to follow the Nixon model on health management.

The stress of the job and his demons drove him to drinking, and then wandering the White House grounds and the National Mall, dialing friends and adversaries late at night.

Haldeman’s diaries are filled with daily temperature readings of the volatile president, a psychological decline that overtook the administration.

Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office.

At the end of the day, the Presidency is a job of stewardship.


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