What Is the President’s Job?

A conversation about the particulars and problems of “the hardest job in the world.”

Nixon and LBJ seated and seated and conferring over a binder
Then President-elect Richard Nixon and President Lyndon B. Johnson confer on the orderly transition of power in the chief executive’s White House office, Dec. 12, 1968, in Washington. -/AFP via Getty Images

60 Minutes correspondent and Slate Political Gabfest co-host John Dickerson has written a new book that’s out this week, in the middle of a volatile and unpredictable presidential election year. In The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency, Dickerson analyzes what the job requires of its occupant and how its purview has metastasized since the nation’s founding into a sprawling, untenable collection of demands and responsibilities.

On Wednesday, Dickerson joined Mike Pesca on The Gist to discuss what makes a successful president, how the position’s job description can help readers think about voting for one, and what presidential history might tell us about the office-holder’s role amid major crises such as, say, a pandemic and mass protests against racism and police violence. A certain unconventional Oval Office inhabitant came up as well. A portion of the conversation is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Mike Pesca: Generally, your critique of presidential campaigns and campaign coverage is that we act as if this is an exercise in selecting for a certain skillset. The problem is the job requires a totally different, and sometimes opposite, skillset.

John Dickerson: You’ve got it exactly right. The only thing I would add is, it requires an opposite skillset, and sometimes our campaigns sort of train us and the candidates to elevate skills that don’t matter so much. The communication skill would be one of them. I mean, if you think about what happens in campaigns, [it’s practicing] the ability to make small differences seem catastrophic and a key to the heart of the republic, right? That’s a skill you learn in campaigns, but it isn’t what you need to do as a person who governs. Attack is what campaigns are all about. Governing is more about building consensus and conciliation, and [having] the restraint of not going for the throat when the moment presents itself.

The original blueprint [of the presidency] was a nice little colonial, with a single room and a big fireplace, and then over time we’ve added all kinds of wings. And there’s all this stuff that’s been bolted onto the structure. Some of it’s useful, some of it isn’t, some of it’s misshapen, and the communications piece has changed dramatically. Before television, communication was just so much different. And before radio, and so on.

But if indeed the presidency is impossible—as you point out, every 10 or 20 years someone writes a book literally with that title, The Impossible Presidency—if it’s so impossible, then is it really important to reconstruct our conception of campaigns to best select the person who’s not going to be able to do the job anyway? I guess you could argue, “Maybe it’s a Sisyphean task, but at least Sisyphus is more up to it than Don Knotts would be.”

That’s exactly right. By the way, anybody who makes a Don Knotts reference is just automatically elevated to the upper echelons. Anybody who doesn’t know who Don Knotts is should go look him up and then rest in the beauty of that analogy.

There are two approaches. One is, you need Sisyphus, at least, to keep pushing that boulder back up the hill, because if you don’t we’ll all get flattened by it. If that indeed is the way the boulder worked. The second is, OK, while you’re electing good people to do the job as it’s conceived now, let’s focus on doing other things, like pushing Congress to do more, thinking more about governors and mayors and their role in the system, and also readjusting our expectations and our view of the complexity of the world.

Not only do we have to elect somebody who understands how to build teams, understands how to prioritize, has a sense of character that matches the kind of character the job requires, but then just simply by shifting ourselves into that mindset … at least if you change your mindset on what you’re looking for, that might change the way we have certain conversations. And that might lead to just a different way of assessing the job, which might say, “You know what? This is not the president’s job. Somebody else should be handling this.”

Let me ask you about going back to the original blueprint. I’m glad you did. But as you note in the book, even the Founding Fathers didn’t concentrate too much on the executive, because they knew it would be George Washington, so he pretty much defined it. But what is the value of that [blueprint]? How is that so much different than, say, a jurist who is a constitutional originalist? I don’t want us not to consider history, but times were so different, really, how valuable is the original blueprint?

Well, it should be a place of stability. It should be a cornerstone. But obviously [the Constitution] only goes so far, because it had a huge internal contradiction in that it was a liberty document that was founded on, and in fact could only be ratified, by the agreement that a certain portion of the country would be enslaved. So it had a whopping huge error right at its center. But Frederick Douglass, in arguing his case for ending slavery, uses the ideas that are part of that document. So it has value even in undoing its greatest flaw. For me, what is important about both the document and also the four months that they sweated it out in Philadelphia, is the thinking that was at the center of it. Both about the shared powers system, and also about the baleful effect of ambition, and the reason you needed both personal checks against ambition, which we can call character, but then also systemic structural checks against that system.

When you hear [the Founders] talking about the flaws at the center of human nature—which is either the ambition that runs away, that leaders’ ambition is unstoppable. And there’s a kind of madness that comes when your ambition is coupled with power. And then [the Founders] also think about the mob, which they were just as fearful as they were—in fact, [they were] more fearful [of the mob] than the monarch. They were dealing with exactly the basic stuff that we’re dealing with today. So they wrestled in a very concentrated way. These were smart people; the only problem is they were not diverse at all. But they were quite smart, and they spent a great deal of time trying to think through these problems that are still clanging around in our system today.

The presidency is hard—of course it’s hard, but is it less hard for a president whose agenda is more along the lines of, “let’s cut regulation, let’s have small government, let’s be isolationist,” a president who doesn’t like treaties? This is not side-eye at the current president. In general I’m asking: If your ambitions are more of a remaking of society versus a retrenchment, isn’t it harder for the remaker than the retrencher?

I think so, yes. Because implicit in the remaking is that you’re going to have your hands on everything. So it increases your to-do list, and that implicitly increases to anything that happens, because you can’t say, “Look, that’s just not in my purview. That’s not a part of the job.” It’s amazing, by the way, when you go back and look at Eisenhower or Grover Cleveland, or any of the presidents who, faced with a national disaster or a problem, basically said, “It’s not the president’s job. Not the executive branch’s role.” I mean, clearly President Trump has said that explicitly, and certainly behaved that way implicitly with respect to the COVID response from governors.

The problem is that there have been all of these practice tests, where the federal government and the executive branch have sat down and done tabletop exercises about what to do in a pandemic, and tabletop exercises about what to do in a pandemic that starts in China. So if the executive branch has been preparing for something to happen, you can’t then, when it happens, say, “Oh, this is somebody else’s job to do.” Any president that seeks to pare down the office has to worry. This is why it’s such a hard job. You go in there, and there’s no blueprint for the organizational chart. Everybody has to kind of make it up as they go along.

Right. Sometimes there’s not even a blueprint. The last guy gives you a weird bicycle with twisted spokes mounted on a plank.

Exactly. You’re referring there to the present that [outgoing Gerald Ford chief of staff] Dick Cheney left for Hamilton Jordan, who was not [President Jimmy] Carter’s chief of staff until later, telling him basically the reason that they gave him a bicycle wheel is that Gerald Ford, coming in after Nixon said, “I want to be accessible to everybody.” And the idea was that he was the hub of the bicycle wheel, and the spokes represented all the different people that could come in and see President Ford. That of course was a collapsing failure, because there’s just too much to do, and you can’t always be tending to the needs of each person.

And often, you need a chief of staff to basically be, as [H.R.] Haldeman was described by Nixon, your chief “son-of-a-bitch”—to be the person who says no, so that you can retain your good graces with your staff. What happened was, basically, Cheney’s staff gave him the wheel at the end of the administration, [but they] broke all of the spokes and had just one, which represented the relationship between staffers, Cheney, and Ford. If you wanted to get to the president, you had to go through Cheney. He was arguing that’s what Carter should do. Carter didn’t listen, and it was a disaster.

But I think that if you want to pare back, you have to first figure out, what is the smartest organizational chart?

I feel about the presidency what they say about writing a book. Which is, when you’re done writing it, you’ve taught yourself how to write it, and you’re ready to write it. The problem is it’s done and it’s been published. So, in the presidency, you don’t really know how to run the place until you’ve run the place. The problem is the minute you get in there, your inbox starts filling with snakes, and you can’t reorganize it while you’re doing it. That’s what makes it so hard. So if you’re paring down, the challenge is, “Am I cutting in the right place? Because boy, if I cut the pandemic response, a part of the national security team, I’m going to be in big trouble when we get hit by a pandemic.”

There’s a lot of Trump in this book. But what I had to do was, I changed the way I approached the book as I was reading it. I kept falling into a comparison with the current moment. The way Trump does the presidency is in no way aligned with best practices or even sane practices. How did you either compartmentalize or strategize or think about how you would approach the Trump presidency, and how and when you would slot it into the rest of this long exercise and the scholarship that the book represents?

It was a big, big challenge. It was a challenge for the book, and it was a challenge for the piece, the cover story in the Atlantic that I wrote a couple of years ago that was a kind of first swing at this. But it was a constant challenge. Because here’s the other complexity with Donald Trump, is not only do you have the necessary and reasonable urge to measure him by the standards of the office and whether he meets them or breaks them, but he’s also a fascinating tool that helps you understand the office.

He is clearly the president who does not fit the mold. So you can talk about the way in which he doesn’t fit the mold, but he also shows you those empty spaces in the mold. Then you think, “Well, is the mold built the right way?” A good president has both the creative, new way of looking at something, but then also has a dedication to execution. So that they’re not just saying, “Well, this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong,” but offering no new pathway. You have to do both.

I just tried basically to use the president the way I used any other president, which was to illuminate an aspect of the office that I thought was interesting and that I was trying to explore. If the office was broken before Donald Trump got into it, regardless of what you may think about him, there are still those underlying problems that exist, and you shouldn’t let the individual obscure those problems.

Listen to the full conversation between Mike Pesca and John Dickerson below, and subscribe to the Gist on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus, and enjoy ad-free episodes of the show.

The book jacket showing LBJ with his head in his hands at a long table
Random House