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How The Job Of The U.S. President Has Changed Over Decades


Many people have observed that Donald Trump's presidency is unlike any other. In a new article for The Atlantic, John Dickerson raises a larger question. What if the problem isn't the president but the presidency? He looks at the way the job has changed over the decades, growing to encompass such a wide range of expectations that he argues no president could possibly check every box. John Dickerson, welcome.

JOHN DICKERSON: Thank you, Ari - very happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: What first led you to this thesis that the presidency is broken?

DICKERSON: Well, it started actually in the previous administration just when you look at the expectations people have for the office and how we measure presidents both when they're in office but also in the campaigns. What are we measuring them against? And it turns out that standard is shifting and changing and sometimes highly unrealistic either because it was never possible as a president. Or they get measured against previous presidents who had special circumstances that aren't the same ones those presidents face in the moment.

An example of that would be when President Obama was constantly criticized for not being more like LBJ. There weren't a lot of people who were saying, you know, LBJ had very specific circumstances when he was working with Congress. He had majorities that Obama didn't have and that ultimately even though he was very successful for a period of time, he ran into lots of problems which were similar in a way to the ones that Obama was running into.

SHAPIRO: Your description of President Johnson's relationship to Congress connects to something you point out in this article, which is that when you say the presidency is broken, what it sounds like you are really saying or also saying is Congress is broken. The parties are broken. Voters are broken. The media is broken. Like, there's a lot more that's broken here than just the Oval Office.

DICKERSON: Precisely. And the reason we - the reason I came at it through the presidency is - and this is one of the ways in which it's broken - is that our politics now kind of all drives through the presidency, and that is a problem in and of itself in that we think of the presidency as this kind of action hero office. Presidents run for office as action heroes. And it turns out there are a lot of things for which the presidency is not well-equipped that Congress should be taking care of. There are a lot of things that voters want presidents take care of that perhaps they should be thinking about differently.

SHAPIRO: Just to give us a sense of what the job today entails, you list at one point in this article the things that President Obama did in the days leading up to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And these are just the things that came immediately before and after each meeting that Obama chaired of the National Security Council. Will you just read from the section of the article?

DICKERSON: Sure. (Reading) 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 fundraising dinner, a budget speech, a prayer breakfast, immigration reform meetings, the announcement of a new national security team, planning for his re-election campaign and a military intervention in Libya.

(Reading) On April 27, the day before Obama chaired his last National Security Council meeting on the bin Laden raid, the 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.

(Reading) On Saturday, April 30, with the operation underway 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.



SHAPIRO: And his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told you that list is not even so far out of the ordinary.

DICKERSON: That's right. And what I was trying to do in that portion of the piece is give people a sense of what the psychological squeeze is on the presidential brain. A presidential brain has to shift between all of those things and sometimes at the same time - well, not sometimes - all the time, they have to keep little locked boxes of information that only they know or only they plus one other person know. And yet they can betray none of this to their closest aides or to the public while they're engaged in all of those different duties. And if they slip up on one of those duties, there is a social media and media complex ready to call them out for failure.

SHAPIRO: Right. If you're thinking about the bin Laden raid that's happening the next day while you're consoling a hurricane victim and the hurricane victim is crying and you don't hand that person a tissue, everyone in America will say, what a callous, heartless monster who didn't hand that person a tissue.

DICKERSON: That's exactly right. And because it appeared on a picture or on videotape, it becomes more powerful. It can in fact define your entire presidency if it gets truly out of hand.

SHAPIRO: So much of what you write about leads us almost inevitably to President Trump, this reality TV star who's great at getting headlines. How do his unique qualities as president fit into what you're describing here?

DICKERSON: In the office, he is shredding norms at such a rate that he is exposing essentially that the presidency is held together in many instances by the passing on of traditions and norms from the previous one. Obviously George Washington set that precedent immediately. Everything he did he knew was putting in place some rules for those who would follow.

And Donald Trump has challenged all of that, which means we are in a position to try to figure out, OK, what should the core qualities of the president be, and can that be changed within the Trump presidency? Or when we have our next election, should we be looking for these core aspects of the presidency in our candidates and not a lot of what we look for in our campaigns today?

SHAPIRO: So for whatever criticisms you might have of the way the president is doing the job, it sounds like he is in a way performing a valuable service at exposing kind of the architecture of this office that you say no longer is manageable.

DICKERSON: That's right. Now, depending on where you stand in the partisan makeup, you are - if you are a Trump fan, he is exposing the kind of poorly designed part of the presidency. He's cutting through all the baloney and getting to results. If you are not a Trump fan, you would say he's burning these norms which hold the democracy together and that there - what he's essentially doing is whatever is efficient but at a real cost to both the public, to national unity, to sort of the Enlightenment values of using reason.

Whichever side you are on, it is - it cannot be argued that he is not illuminating the presidency in this very particular way. And so it offers us an opportunity. The question is whether - because he is such a polarizing president, whether anybody is willing to step back from the day-to-day cut and thrust and say, let's look at the institution and not look at just the president who's in it in the moment.

SHAPIRO: Is there one small change that you think could be easily achievable that would make a measurable difference here?

DICKERSON: The fix I would like to see because it allows all of us to be empowered is to think about campaigns with the presidency in mind, keeping our eyes fixed on the job. If the presidential campaign is a job interview, then let's pay attention to the job and not think so much about electing the chief performer in America but a job that has a performance aspect but that also has all these other things. That's something at least all of us in little bits and ways can think about as we run our presidential candidates through whatever our personal filters are when we make our votes.

SHAPIRO: John Dickerson is co-anchor of "CBS This Morning" and a contributing editor to The Atlantic, where you can read his new piece "The Hardest Job In The World: What If The Problem Isn't The President - It's The Presidency?" John Dickerson, thanks so much.

DICKERSON: Ari, thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.