No modern president has been prepared for the responsibilities of office. The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general, or a party leader. The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems. The pace is breathless, even on the quietest day, and the stakes are enormous, even for the smallest decisions. Nearly every waking hour is monumental for the president of the United States. Mere mortals do not live (or survive) in these circumstances.
Despite the crushing intensity, the president is expected to be ever-ready for crises and forward-thinking for strategy; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. Although no human being can do all the things expected of the president, each individual elected to this mighty office must claim that he or she can. The sensationalist rhetoric of social media only reinforces that unrealistic claim. Like the power of the Greek gods, the promise of the presidency always exceeds what is possible.
Every president struggles with this gap between promise and possibility. Some try to leverage an ever-larger group of advisers, others seek to centralize authority with a small set of loyalists. Most do a little of both, relying on their own energy, insight, and instincts to differentiate which issues require attention at a given moment. Bill Clinton, with his enormous intellectual capabilities, was the master of ad hoc leadership. In a matter of hours (sometimes very late night hours), he could become an expert on the smallest policy details, understand their interconnection, and sell a new initiative to diverse audiences with unparalleled clarity. He remains the greatest policy entrepreneur of his generation.
But that was not enough. In his first year, President Clinton was blindsided by crises in Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia, and Rwanda that he initially under-estimated, and then misunderstood. For all his focus on domestic issues, especially the economy, Clinton also struggled to manage racial conflict and other social issues at home in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and the urban riots that preceded his election. In his own words, Clinton was an extraordinary maneuverer and “counter-puncher,” but that left his leadership short of national (and international) expectations. Even he was overwhelmed, beaten down, and humbled in his first White House year.
No president will ever escape the gap between the expectations of the office and the limitations of the individual. The way to begin, however, is to replace denial with frank recognition that presidents are destined to fail more than they succeed. To conduct an effective presidency, the next holder of the office must choose his or her battles carefully, conserve energy, and direct maximum effort at the issues that really matter most. Less is more and planned disciplined, rather than rapid maneuvering, is absolutely crucial.
Presidents must have priorities that they connect closely with policy. Ideology is not enough. Nor is energy and determination. To manage the impossible, the effective American president enters office ready to formulate a strategy that allocates overtaxed time and resources to things that will matter most for his or her conception of the national interest. Keeping less important issues off the presidential agenda is absolutely essential, and that involves discipline and delegation.
In his best moments, when working to reduce the deficit and stimulate the economy, Clinton followed this model. In his worst moments, when hopping from one foreign policy crisis to another, he did not. The next president would do well to study this experience.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is the author of "It's not just the economy, stupid."