Rethinking the American Presidency
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The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 23, 2019
John Dickerson, Max Stier, Mona Sutphen, Robert Bruner (moderator)
By BettyJoyce Nash
The presidency, and the path leading to the nation’s highest office, may be broken. Where it's faltering and how to fix it was the subject of "Rethinking the American Presidency" with panelists John Dickerson, a UVA alumnus and correspondent for CBS's 60 Minutes, Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, and Mona Sutphen, White House deputy chief of staff for President Obama.
One theme was that the job has expanded dramatically in complexity and scale making a dramatic change the office imperative. But what kind of change? Structural? Organizational? Or does the problem lie in they type of individual who we typically elect to high office?
The stakes are high. As the presidency becomes less able to deliver results, we risk voter frustration and dampened participation in our democracy, said Sutphen. “We have this chronic political necessity to over-promise to the American people and we are consistently and chronically under-delivering.”
Dickerson noted that in the original system, Congress dealt with many issues that now the president has to deal with. The increased responsibility, combined with the growing complexity of policy decisions, makes the presidency as challenging as it has ever been.
“One of the problems with complexity is political," said Sutphen. "[I]t’s harder and harder to connect the dots for the American people about why you’re making a particular decision. What that means is you can’t build the political support for the kinds of choices you’re trying to make. . . it’s often true that politicians are allergic to complexity.”
Dickerson looked to the 2008 federal response to the mortgage-backed security crisis as a prime example. “The speed with which they needed to move and the complexity that was kicked off by that crisis required expertise . . . that was different . . . things have become more complex, things move faster, and the information environment in which the president operates is more chaotic,” he said. Stories may get framed in the media before a president has a chance to form a reasoned response.
The notion of “charisma” surfaced and re-surfaced during the hourlong session. Dickerson noted that under President Reagan, people knew what to do not only because of his charisma but because he had two clear objectives: shrink the government and defeat the Soviet Union.
That was 40 years ago.
Currently the focus is on policy declaration not policy execution, Stier said. “You see the signing ceremony but not the ceremony where you get something done. It’s a heck a lot easier to sign a bill than actually making it happen.” And even the most charismatic leaders need technocrats.
There are swaths of government that work relatively independently because they’re staffed by technocrats, Sutphen said, citing the Federal Reserve. There’s an expectation that the agency, which requires specialized knowledge, is managed by people who know the substance of the work better than anyone else and don’t need day-to-day attention. She also suggested whittling the bureaucracy into eight agencies because of overlap and slashing the number of political appointees, who sometimes wander around searching for tasks. It's unsurprising that a career expert may outperform an appointee lacking specific knowledge.
Congress needs to change, too. Because it’s a steward of the executive branch, “You need Congress to organize itself as a better reflection of what we need to see in the White House,” Stier suggestsed. Bringing organizational skills and proven management strategies to the table would improve efficiency. “We need people who can run large organizations efficiently.”
These challenges are critical for democracy to work. “Our government is how we take collective action,” Stier said.
Even with organizational changes, though, character and value and temperament matter. They come from the top. They permeate everything. “Without it," concluded Dickerson, "you have a kind of madness.”
Key quotes from this session
The to-do list of the presidents has gotten bigger and longer and more complex. And the tools have shrunk. And by tools I’m speaking quite broadly here, so, for example, a Congress that is operational. In the original system you had a Congress that dealt with a lot of issues that a president now has to deal with. And then, also, the expectations have mushroomed in the political sphere, where the presidency has become the beginning and end for people about what possible national solutions there might be to national problems. —John Dickerson
We have this chronic political necessity to over-promise to the American people and we are consistently and chronically under-delivering, and that has led to the level of partisanship, frustration . . . by American voters about the need for something to happen. —Mona Sutphen
Charisma is valuable in terms of connecting with the people they’re leading, the citizens of the country; it’s a critical aspect, but it’s not the only one, and we have a tendency to only focus on that as opposed to understanding the broader organizational requirements that we actually need in that kind of individual. —Max Stier
I think we need to ramp ourselves up in a very different way. No one has ever started with their team at the beginning of the administration. . . we need teams coming in at the outset, and confirmed in real time; there’s never been an effort to onboard those people effectively. —Max Stier
I’m a fan of more technocrats and more semi-autonomous entities that can run the day-to-day operations of government. There are swaths of government that work this way, the NSA, the FED, places where there’s an expectation that whatever it is can be managed by people who really know the substance of it. —Mona Sutphen
Character and values are everything; without it you have a kind of madness in an organization. When they picked George Washington they had some sense of his character. The [election] system now is a popularity contest. We don’t really vet for character. How do we do that? —John Dickerson