The American presidency remains the most powerful office in the world, despite the current chaos. The president can bomb more places, spend more money, and influence more people than any other figure in history. Historian Jeremi Suri delivers a new history of the American presidency from the founding era to the present day, arguing that the early successes of the office created dangerous temptations and unrealistic expectations for recent leaders. Suri shows how the history of the presidency explains our current chaos, and possible paths forward.
Suri examines the most important presidents in our nation’s history, exploring the expansion of the president’s power, far beyond the founders’ vision for the office. What started as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy has grown into a towering central command for global decisions about war, the economy, and justice. Washington took charge of the nation’s foreign policy, Lincoln linked war with democracy, and FDR expanded the federal government to combat depression and fascism. In each instance, the president created a new model of national leadership, with successive figures expanding the power of the office. By the time JFK was elected president, the American people expected him to transform the nation. JFK’s “New Frontier” goals were boundless and idealistic: ending poverty and segregation at home, fighting communism abroad. Yet he immediately confronted one crisis after another, from domestic unrest to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Events spiraled beyond his control, and soon he— like all of his successors—found himself physically, emotionally, and intellectually overwhelmed by the daily demands of the presidency. JFK, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, and others lost control of their policy agendas as they were buffeted by the onrush of challenges their predecessors never faced: mutually assured nuclear destruction (MAD), global terrorism, and a relentless media cycle that highlights a president’s mistakes and feeds popular discontent.
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 of history and public affairs. He a leading scholar of American politics, social change, and international affairs. Professor Suri has written or edited nine books, including Henry Kissinger and the American Century and Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. His most recent book, published this September, is The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office. Professor Suri is a frequent contributor to major newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Washington Quarterly, Wired, War on the Rocks, Fortune, and others. Professor Suri is a popular public lecturer, appearing often on television and radio news shows. Professor Suri’s research and teaching have received numerous awards. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America’s “Top Young Innovators.” Professor Suri’s professional web page is: http://jeremisuri.net. His Twitter address is: @jeremisuri.