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 Today, about 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 , the civilian agencies of the federal government employed , people. They now employ three times that number. 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.
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.
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Some, such as Carter, have tried. In July , he held a Cabinet meeting that was more like the Red Wedding. But the press has a way of describing debate as discord. 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. 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. Sage advice, but antique for any president trying to manage the office after the attacks of September 11, 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.
How the PDB is delivered changes with each president. Early in his term, Trump reportedly requested a verbal digest of the brief.
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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. John F. Kennedy requested that his intelligence briefing be small enough to fit in his pocket. Monitoring even small threats can take up an entire day.
An acute example: In June , 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. Your day is spent just trying to prioritize the urgent. Which urgent first? One of George W. Bush wanted to go through every one. 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. Prior to the U.
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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 , 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 healthcare. 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. 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 , 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. 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. 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.
After visiting victims of the storm, Johnson leaped into action, coordinating local forces and pushing Congress to fund relief. 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.
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. Bush, in August , and served as George W. George W. Eisenhower-esque detachment was no longer viable. Amid crashing favorability ratings, Obama interrupted his own vacation to tour abandoned, oil-slicked beaches.
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.
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Lyndon Johnson made the most of the new, televised presidency, but the co-dependency with the cameras started with his predecessor, John F. In , 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 feet to start their eight-hour shift. Votes for Kennedy were shown dropping from the ballot box through the roof of the White House. 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. 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. And just as the Founders had surmised, prolonged exposure to the people had a powerful effect.
The votes had gone right to the White House. 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.
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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. Debate coverage is mostly like a theater review, and it starts before the curtain has come down. Candidates play to the snap judgments, practicing set-piece outbursts. In , when Obama was perceived to have lost the first debate, his team emphasized that he needed to be a better performer.
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. Or, failing that, a reality-TV star? In , after Bill Clinton beat George H. In defeat, Quayle was articulating the common modern view—ratified by voters—that being a gifted campaigner was the more important quality.