Is the presidency just too big to handle? John Dickerson, co-host of "CBS This Morning" penned a lengthy cover story for The Atlantic on how the magnitude of the office itself might be its own greatest impediment. He sat down with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg for an interview in the new "Face the Nation" studio to dive deep into the scale of the presidency.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Hello, and welcome to the first and possibly last edition of "Face the Atlantic." I'm Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic and my guest is John Dickerson, Atlantic contributing writer who also has a day job at CBS, co-host of "CBS This Morning," former moderator of "Face the Nation" and author of The Atlantic magazine's cover story, "How the Presidency Became Impossible." And we're going to talk today about the presidency. John, you know more about the presidency than many people including presidents. It's disconcerting how much you know about the presidency. So let's just jump right into this. The idea behind this, this cover story for The Atlantic, is, is that the presidency is becoming unmanageable. We all know that the presidency is completely unmanageable. The question at the moment of course is, is this the fault of the current president, which is to say his idiosyncratic approach to ruling America has brought into sharp relief some of the problems of the presidency. Or is this just a sort of a structural problem? Is the presidency as, as it's practiced now just an impossible job?
JOHN DICKERSON: Yes, Jeffrey. Good. Then that concludes our hour.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: OK, thank you.
JOHN DICKERSON: So what we should take people behind the scenes a little bit, which is that this when we first started talking about this cover a million years ago —
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: On this set. Actually not this set. On the previous "Face the Nation" set, we're on the new "Face the Nation" set.
JOHN DICKERSON: The old set, it was not related to this president, I don't believe.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: No, no, no.
JOHN DICKERSON: It was so long ago. Right.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It was.
JOHN DICKERSON: So the idea has been with us for a long time, the question of whether the presidency has gotten too big, whether it's out of shape, whether it's impossible. And so this goes back even to Hoover at one point when, when Ike has ... his first heart attack. Hoover essentially suggests that the presidency is too big there should be a vice president for administration. So it's 1952.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Like a prime minister.
JOHN DICKERSON: Right. Exactly. Which leaves the question, what was the other vice president supposed to do, since he was pretty — since Nixon was feeling like he was under-utilized too. But nevertheless the question's been with us a long time. But this president is doing two things: he's highlighting, because he's so idiosyncratic he is not engaging in lots of the roles of the president, for example, the kind of constant attention to natural disasters, Puerto Rico would be a good example. He showed up late. He sort of did it perfunctorily. There was the famous image of him shooting paper towels like he was trying to drain three-point shots. Previous presidents would never be able to get away with that kind of approach to a natural disaster and subsequent to that the president hasn't exactly been on the case with, with Puerto Rico, constantly visiting, constantly talking about it. So he has shed some of the roles of the president and in doing so it raises the question, well, should that be a core role of the president. It wasn't always.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: So you're saying that a Trump presidency is useful in that it allows us to examine some of the things we expect from a president.
DICKERSON: Yes. And the question of examining the presidency and whether it's out of shape is necessary to add to analyze any presidency. So it was the Obama presidency. George W. Bush. President Trump. So one of the things that President Trump bristled at originally on coming into office was the fact that he was so constrained. He said after 100 days that he felt that the job was harder than he expected, which is a common presidential revelation. They all come to this because they campaign as superheroes.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I just have to pause and say, who would think that the presidency is easy?
DICKERSON: Well, they campaign as if it's easy, and this is the problem. So when they campaign they say well I'm going to fix this and I'm going to do this, and they appeal to — and this is, of course, we can talk about this. The extent to which presidents have increasingly amped up the amount of things they say they can do, then they get in the job and they have those expectations they have to meet. So they can either meet those expectations, which of course is impossible because they are not kings. And instead of being able to meet those expectations they have to basically say, Oh it turns out it was harder than I thought. They're willing to make that admission to explain why they have been able to do the 15 things they said they were going to able to do, right?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Let's let's go back all the way to the beginning, or to come back to Donald Trump and the way he carries out the responsibilities or doesn't carry out the responsibilities we associate with the presidency. Let's go back all the way to the beginning. The founders. What did they think the presidency was supposed to be.
DICKERSON: Well, they were unclear, right? So they wanted it not to be a kingship. They weren't so — they were very clear about that.
GOLDBERG: But then George Washington was adamant that the best thing that he ever did was to step down. (DICKERSON: Yes) So as to not to make it a monarchy.
DICKERSON: Exactly. And he was adamant about everything from the way he behaved to the title he was given. There was no "Your Excellency" or anything. And they wanted to make sure that it was not an office with so much power that they could be, that they could become a president could become like a king. On the other hand, the real worry from Alexander Hamilton and others was that if you didn't give it enough power the president would not be able to move quickly enough. Legislators are only elected every two years, or six years in the Senate. So you need an office that is responsive to the natural the national moment. You see that I said the national moment and not the public. So this is a crucial in the evolution of the presidency when we get into Wilson's age you start to think of the presidency as a necessary place that is responsive to the public will. And that's a big change. But the originally ... the founders wanted the president to float above it all till—
GOLDBERG: There is no campaigning. There was no there was no interaction with the public the way they have.
DICKERSON: To campaign was to be seen as unfit for the office because it meant you were grubbing for votes and you were appealing to people and selling your thoughts to people instead of doing what a president should do which is use their calm, clear reason, their virtue, and to adjudicate whatever issues were before them, but mostly to leave most of the work to Congress. And that was the primary engine of the American government and the presidency was supposed to act in, of course, in cases of war. And in moments of execution — but executing, of course, the laws that Congress did for.
GOLDBERG: So a bunch of things have happened in the interim between James Madison and now. One of the things that's happened as well, both television and the, and the entertainment quality that we've invested in the presidency. But another is that Congress is kind of withered as a coequal branch. Is that is that too harsh a statement?
DICKERSON: No, no. I don't think I mean, you know, in interviewing all the practitioners from various administrations when I talked to Denis McDonough, the chief of staff for Barack Obama, he said no conversation about, any conversation about the presidency has to start with Congress. And so that's why this piece, while it's about the presidency because, I think — as Sid Milkis, who's at the University of Virginia, professor there, points out — as we sort of think of government through the presidency, I mean, it is for better or for worse. And his argument would be for worse we think of president as government. So when you're, even though we're talking about the president we have to talk about Congress.
GOLDBERG: Who's to blame?
DICKERSON: Well. So there's a big — let's step back for just one moment to go to your initial question which is why are we raising this question now. There are a couple of reasons it's been raised. As we say over the course of the years what's I think changed. We put our finger on a few things. One is the post-9/11 age makes terror threats and the national security picture more complicated.
GOLDBERG: Even more complicated than the Cold War?
DICKERSON: Because as you know and ... we will be speaking about this more in depth, in the Cold War you had one enemy, you know.
DICKERSON: So you had the USSR. Nixon decided to play China off the USSR but everything fit through the sorting mechanism of capitalism versus communism. Roughly. Now you've got nonstate actors, you've got — I mean look at the Middle East alone. Your area of expertise. How much complexity and and mess there is in the Middle East. And that's not to say that presidents didn't care about the Middle East during the Cold War, but think of all the drama that's come out of the Middle East. Then there's China. So it's a much more complicated and because you can fly planes into buildings or send cyber threats. There are more numerous threats than during the Cold War.
GOLDBERG: Let's go back to this blame question. When did that shift into a kind of unwieldy mess?
DICKERSON: Well it depends. You can go back to you know the beginning of the founding of the country when they tried to create a presidency and a government free of faction. They said if their political parties come up then it will be a disaster because then people will basically behave and think of policy not based on the merits and based on their calm clear reason but because they wanted their team to win or the other team to win. And so that started as soon as basically you have the fights between Hamilton and Jefferson. You have this break into parties. Now that goes away a little bit. The Whigs die off but — and you go, you bump along for a while. And I think the current thing that we try to put our finger on in in this piece is the partisanship that comes along. The moment we choose to decide to put it down as the 1990 budget deal where George W. Bush, excuse me, George Herbert Walker Bush, puts together a deal with Democrats in Congress to put the budget on a better and more sustainable path. Democrats Republicans show up in the Rose Garden at the White House in what would look very strange today, to have leaders of both parties all praising each other a big kumbaya moment. Well, while that's going on, Newt Gingrich is has left the White House refusing to sign onto this deal, saying it's a betrayal of conservative principles. He goes back to the Hill where he is greeted as a conquering hero because he said—
GOLDBERG: By that time's version of the Freedom Caucus or whatever.
DICKERSON: Precisely, exactly. So this is 1998, right. That budget deal breaks down because both the wings on the left and the right won't go along with what the president and the leaders of both parties have decided. So that begins, or is a part of a process, in which the wings and particularly this is true, more true on the Republican side than on the Democratic side, although in the next presidential campaign we may see more sorting on the Democratic side. But where the wings of the party, the ideologues in the party are more and more influential.
GOLDBERG: So I don't want to oversimplify this but are you saying that that there's two ideas here: George H.W. Bush idea of governance and the Newt Gingrich idea of governance, and we know what happened to Bush.
GOLDBERG: I mean 'No new taxes.'
GOLDBERG: And then and then he violates that promise in the interest, he would say, in a lot of Democrats or Republicans — that he would say the interest of continuity of government and good government, and he gets punished for it. Newt Gingrich is rewarded. So is all this piece really about Newt Gingrich?
DICKERSON: Well a lot of people actually — you can, a lot of conversations about what's happened in our national government do kind of get back to Newt Gingrich in a way because A) it was not just that he was keeping the flame for conservative principles. It's that he then initiated, rose to power and made, put it into the modern era the sort of, the sort of weaponizing of grassroots upset in terms of punishing those heretics.
GOLDBERG: And he had technology coming on board that would help them. CSPAN. The broadcasting of Congress.
DICKERSON: He was a very patient tactician and strategist who worked and built a farm team of people who then came and filled the seats of Congress who had his same worldview and his same approach which meant as a president trying to build coalitions you had fewer people who were going to work with you. This also became a conduit for grassroots opinion which had been frustrated with the establishment in the Republican Party before going back to the 50s. The National Review says it basically created itself in response to the Eisenhower presidency. So here you have a Republicans and a conservative movement that grows up not because of the evil socialist democrats but because of the capitulation as they sign a republic.
GOLDBERG: I don't want to pin all the blame or credit on Newt Gingrich. Let's step back one more moment to the founders, to Madison who believed in indirect democracy, for instance. Was it that, was it that — was it that they were unrealistic about human nature and about, and about the system? Or is it about that we are debased? I mean, in other words of Madison we're come back today and look at our system here probably go right back to the 18th century here. But is it that they had an unreasonable expectation of what humans, a human polity could do?
DICKERSON: I don't think so.
GOLDBERG: I mean, they did not have the internet.
DICKERSON: They didn't. But they designed it so that, remember the famous line in the Federalist Papers about ambition fighting ambition. So they knew that everybody would operate in their own self-interest. And as a result formed a government with shared power so that everybody operating their self-interest could only go so far. And a lot of the constraints the presidents feel are thereby designed so that an ambitious president who was off on his own self-interest of course would be constrained by the other branches. And one of the things when we talk about the supine role Congress plays now is they not only are no longer a partner with the president, they not only are or were more partisan than they used to be, but they also are not checking the president if they are of his same party in the way they used to. And so that independent role of Congress has also atrophied. But I think they thought that that lawmakers would be pursuing their self-interest. Now I think what they didn't see, of course, was the way in which she could have influence of the kind we have today from special interests and that there would be some level of. Kind of standard that people would try to keep, they would fall short but they would still in public have to keep that standard. And you know, one of the things we see, just a contemporary standard that has fallen, is remember when presidents used to even if they were behaving in a partisan fashion they would talk about bipartisanship and they would suggest this was a goal of something that they were doing would try it fail. And then they go their partisan way. So far in this administration there has been no effort really almost at all on any bipartisan bill
GOLDBERG: You write about this in the piece that that Obama came in thinking that he could convince anyone of anything. Are you saying that Donald Trump is simply more honest in his approach or are you saying that he is debasing what should be a more bipartisan consensual approach to governance?
DICKERSON: So this is the great question of the Trump presidency, is the operate in the way the world is the way it is or the world is the way it should be or or people might want it to be? So what President Trump has essentially done is looked at a system in which he's going to go and, he's, he had two choices. He could create coalitions of Democrats and Republicans, which is what he talked about on the campaign trail, getting into a room and negotiating with both sides. Or he could just run a totally base-oriented, sort of forget even the theatrics of bipartisanship. Don't have the White House meetings. I mean he's had a couple of public kind of before-the-cameras talk about bipartisanship that aren't the real deal of governing. And so he's just basically decided to run as a partisan president which may be the evolution. He looks at the current system and that makes the, the draw the conclusion that Democrats are never going to work with him. So why should I even participate in that charade. Let's just get things done now. That's fragile. And it means that what happens is you have government that whipsaw from one to the other. Right. You have a president who passes some stuff, then the next president undoes it, and all you have is president doing it and undoing each other and not addressing of course the problems of the day.
GOLDBERG: Right. I'm straining to be linear here but it's impossible when you talk with the presidency because there's different examples from different areas. Let's go go back for one minute before we come back to Trump. Go back to FDR because I think, I mean at least as I read you and as least as I read history, FDR represents a moment when the presidency became relatively speaking for the time a kind of gargantuan project. Yes. Is that fair?
DICKERSON: Oh yeah. Well, and of course the times demanded it, first with the Great Depression and then Second World War.
GOLDBERG: But gargantuan was by our standards not very gargantuan.
DICKERSON: Well, that's right. And one of the things that John Swansburg, who edited this and I, every time we wanted to bring in history the point was not to just tell pretty stories or say like this is the way it was, it just kind of habit lay there —
GOLDBERG: Though it's filled with pretty stories.
DICKERSON: Well, it's exactly right. But the stories have to be not just, you know, they have to highlight and illuminate a specific point we're making about today. So what intrigues me about FDR is, OK, so FDR has almost no White House staff by the definition of White House staff.
GOLDBERG: How many people?
DICKERSON: He had I think, well, it depends because of the way they the cabinet agencies operated independently of the presidency. I mean he picked his secretary of state but they were an independent person. So he had a couple of secretaries. So essentially FDR creates a commission, the Brownlow Committee, which looks at the presidency and determines basically FDR said look, I can't do this job with the staff that I have and in the organizational structure I have. So he creates the Brownlow Committee, they come back and they say famously the president needs help. So there's a piece of legislation that goes to the Hill. The president asked for like a handful of staffers — almost, really less than a dozen. Congress goes berserk, including members of his own party. People are marching in the street wearing Paul Revere costumes saying we don't want a dictator because he's asked for this very piddling number of staffers to help him do his job.
GOLDBERG: Literally fewer than 10.
DICKERSON: Fewer than 10. And so what's extraordinary about this is there is an uprising. I mean I think 300,000 telegrams are sent to the Hill—
DICKERSON: — at this power grab by the president, OK, within, from within his own party. So Eisen— So FDR says, well, I'm going to, I'm going to punish those Democrats who voted against my reorganization of the executive branch. So in the election 1938 he has what's called at the time a purge of the Democratic Party. Says I'm going to take on those Democrats and basically all the Democrats he backs lose, lose. So he tries to take them on and fails again miserably. A couple of things intrigued me about this one. FDR expands the office and even he was supremely constrained by the public and the Congress. Now you have a situation in which Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and other Republicans who are not in lockstep with the current president have essentially been run out of their party.
GOLDBERG: You've just named most of the Republicans who are not in lockstep. Granted it doesn't take a long time to do that.
DICKERSON: And they're no longer in the party. So the president can purge without even bothering to have an election. It's a self-purging mechanism now, in which you have this relationship between a president and his party that is completely in sync and you have the White House of course that is now ballooned in size and in the number of cabinet agencies and I mean—
GOLDBERG: One of the contradictions of the presidency is that it is both the most powerful office in the world, but — and you write this in the article — presidents are often astonished by how little they can actually achieve. That's one of the reasons many moved toward foreign policy, national security policy, because they can do things by fiat in a way that they can't do. So how do how do I understand this contradiction? It's become more and more powerful. Power has been more and more centralized. Symbolic and real power has been centralized in the presidency over the decades. But on the other hand most who will come into the office including Donald Trump and including Barack Obama come in and say wait I can't do all of the things I actually promised to do because of these built-in constraints.
DICKERSON: Well if you look at the problems they want to try to solve — immigration, entitlements, any tax and economic policy —they have to go through Congress and Congress is as you know is a mess at the moment in terms of working with the president, they don't have the majority, so they have to do it through reconciliation which lowers the threshold for what you need to pass. So any of the domestic promises they've made in the campaign and you tend to make more domestic promises in the campaign than foreign policy promises because that's, and we should get to the the campaign system in the way that's changed the way the presidency works. But any of that stuff they want to do on health care, taxes, immigration, all has to be done in this hyper partisan atmosphere in which things are moving slowly. So they move slowly by the design of the founders and they move really slowly because of this hyper partisanship. On foreign affairs, they have all of this free room to move. President Obama and his team would tell you that they sometimes felt a little bit over their skis, and you should weigh in here, on drone policy. They were like were just making it up as we go along. There is no Congress stepping in and saying —
GOLDBERG: Yeah, this goes to your point which is that Congress, there's an abdication. You know you can't, you can't, you can't turn this, see, into an imperial presidency without the active abdication of people who don't want to weigh in because I don't want to be held responsible. ... Keep keep going on this foreign policy issue because I feel as if we're watching right now a president has decided that he's going to remake the world in part because it seems to go faster as a process.
DICKERSON: Right, exactly. And so you see, I mean whether it's moving the embassy to Jerusalem or what the president is doing it—
GOLDBERG: The Iran deal—
DICKERSON: Around the Iran deal, the Paris climate accords, the relationship with China and now North Korea. So this, this reminds me very much what we're talking about right now. Nixon, because Nixon basically thought look you could have some administrators deal with domestic policy but where greatness is achieved and where America can really be either helped or hurt by president is in foreign policy. And this is the way, this was his mindset surrounding the meeting with Mao and the pivot, not the pivot to Asia but the embracing China for the first time since 1949. And when you look at Nixon and what two things are really striking, one is this focus on foreign policy and basically this feeling that it was all in his hands like he could do it all himself. There wasn't Congress. I mean yes he got some grief, National Review was boycotting him because they thought he was too weak on the communists by even thinking about embracing China. But the other thing that's striking about this compared to the President Trump's meeting with a North Korean leader is the amount of preparation that went into the Nixon meeting. Nixon prepared for that meeting for basically three years. He'd written an article in 1967 for Foreign Policy magazine on his thoughts about Asia. He was a student, there was 500 pages of briefings that Kissinger had had with Chairman [Zhou] Enali. He had a 4-foot-tall set of briefing books before his meeting with China.
GOLDBERG: It was just like today.
DICKERSON: Yeah. It was this belief that you really had to understand foreign policy because it was complicated and because you had such free rein.
GOLDBERG: There's an interesting aspect of the opening to China that that relates to the media age in which we live. You know this story is better better than anyone. Henry Kissinger knew when he was going to negotiate the seemingly spontaneous summit visit of an extended China, disappeared for a week and he was actually he was actually talking to the Chinese secretly. But there was a story put out that he had the flu or something like that. And imagine today a president or his secretary of state or someone of equivalent stature just disappearing.
GOLDBERG: And not having the internet explode with conspiracy-mongering and the good journalists of the world all hunting down the person to figure out what they're doing. You can't, you can't do anything in secret anymore. And that's a problem for the presidency, right? You can't really negotiate sensitive treaties with adversarial countries in the full glare of the internet, right?
DICKERSON: Right, it's true, although Pompeo was able to ... then CIA director now secretary of state—
GOLDBERG: Yeah, when he was CIA director.
DICKERSON: And he was able to sneak in. He was CIA director so when they go missing, that's part of the job. But, but, but you're right. And what will be really fascinating is the way in which this is adjudicated. You know there was a tiny little fibrillation in in mid-May about the so-called Libya model for dealing with North Korea and it was adjudicated in the moment, 'oh my God, is that, are the talks going to fall apart?' As you know the theater that surrounds these is full of ups and downs and this's and thats. But right now every little time there is a little hiccup it is covered as if it is the end of the free world. And that again is a part of a thing that... The other amazing thing just in terms of press coverage as Nixon leaves for China leaves on the White House lawn again. First of all it's treated like he's going to the moon when the number of cameras and the number of people on the White House lawn. But also the leaders of both parties are there to see him off. It is a national moment by the president. Very simple absence.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, that's impossible right now. Come to this subject about this is partially a media question. The expectations that we've put on the president. You write about visiting hurricane sites and being the national mourner in chief. We all seem to agree, I think, that it would be better if the president didn't feel compelled to go to Louisiana when after a hurricane to sort of comfort people and get in the way. It's not his role. He has people to do that. But if he didn't do that if the current president or anyone else didn't do that, don't you think that we in the media would punish him well for that?
DICKERSON: This is one of the great tensions. So a president is the only person who can deliver the kind of balm that a visit provides which is you're not alone. We're coming to help. It is a symbolic gesture that actually can do some good. It doesn't get in the way really of what the, the work that's being done.
GOLDBERG: It's hard to argue that though because I mean two days after Hurricane. When the presidency moves itself to a hurricane zone that means that all of the officials who should are the local officials who should be cleaning up and doing whatever they need to do have to pause, greet the president welcome him do all of that show. I mean just get in the way.
DICKERSON: Well it does get in the way. But it's not an acute interruption. And the upside is you have all these people saying the nation is looking and we're, you know, we're here for.
GOLDBERG: And that's what I'm talking about. That expectation. Why is the nation waiting for the president to act like the Queen of England?
DICKERSON: Well, because we have a view of the presidency started by Lyndon Johnson and affirmed by subsequent presidents as a, as a kind of man on the spot and an action hero who appears at the right moment. And the way we cover natural disasters, and this is all television's fault, is that here was an unfolding national drama that we can splash across TVs and keep people glued to the TVs, and what's more compelling than seeing the family plucked out of their, wading in their living room up to their necks in water. The rescues were dramatic. The human interest stories were dramatic. So suddenly you had a national drama playing out. And so everybody's watching this on television and a president sees an opportunity which is the president—
GOLDBERG: The president's the star of the show.
DICKERSON: The president is the star of the drama. And right after Lyndon Johnson goes down to help with Hurricane Betsy in Louisiana, you see the headline in The Washington Post that says the president initiated action. It is going back to our previous point about a president who gets in the office and realize there's not as much control as he wants. It's a chance outside of foreign policy to show he's on the case, that he's making stuff move, that he's unsticking ... you know, unsticking the stuck parts and blowing through the red tape. So it's an opportunity for a president to act in what Leon Panetta said is one of the ways you manage a president is give them action, give them the tools, they do. And so now the question then is should we all stop expecting this because it distracts president? And also we apply this not in the same way. So for example Barack Obama was on the hook and took a political hit for not solving the BP oil spill.
GOLDBERG: Which is insane when you think about it. What is he supposed to do about a leaky oil well in the Gulf of Mexico?
DICKERSON: Exactly. And yet now here this is really interesting. So that's exactly right. And that's essentially what President Trump says about Puerto Rico, which is look infrastructure in Puerto Rico was a mess that was there long before I ever came. And then you had this massive natural event over which I have no control. And so, yes, it may be going along slowly but those are not things for which I should be blamed. President Obama was blamed for BP and just the way you say. Now here's the thing though you go to the Obama people and you say, well, wasn't that unfair to you? And they say, you know, they have what and this. We took this out of the piece because we didn't have the space, but they had this theory basically about the presidential complaint window which is when you are upset with your national government you can't go to Bob Corker, Senator of Tennessee. You have to go, there is a central figure who is the repository of national complaints about the way things are going. And that's the president. And he just basically has to suck it up. As LBJ said sometimes it's like being a jackass in a hailstorm you just have to sit there and take it. And that, they believe, that, that's an important part of the presidential role which is that he's the one place everybody can go focus their anger and complain on even if he's not really on the hook for it.
GOLDBERG: This goes to a question about emotional bandwidth, not just intellectual bandwidth that we expect of a president. It seems as if there's no job in the world that demands more emotionally of its occupant than the president of the United States. Can you talk about that for a minute?
DICKERSON: And I think it does and it's another thing that we hit on if we said post-9/11 security challenges rise of partisanship. These are two things that have changed in the last, well, since 9/11 that have created the impossibility of the moment that's different than the impossibility in the past. And the psychological squeeze is another one, which is that everything we've talked about to the extent that the presidency increases, that is, more weight on the presidential brain. Secondly, if you look at the social media and media landscape now presidents are getting nibbled at in more ways than ever before. That also creates, and Andy Card has a great explanation of what it was like—
GOLDBERG: Former Bush administration—
DICKERSON: Former Bush administration official, also in, so worked for the father [George] Herbert Walker Bush and for George W., which was his chief of staff. He describes what it was like in the pre kind of frenzied media age where you'd have kind of one story you had to manage during a day and then at about 6:00 o'clock you'd have your last little hiccup of, of crisis because of the evening newscast at 6:30. And once that newscast started you could kind of relax for a minute. He says, you know, when he got in the George W. Bush period it was two things happen. One there was just more news everywhere, so it's online. It's not just the evening news goes on. Sometimes it's a 24 hour news cycle and the standards had changed. So what in the past was a rumor that somebody would bring to you off the record to try to get you to confirm it, but you knew if you didn't confirmed it wouldn't show up somewhere. Now, you know, the rumor gets printed. So now you're reacting to a thing that's been printed. You have to determine what your reaction is going to be or whether you're going to react at all. So the number has increased and the kind of, the stakes have increased because things that in the past might never got in print are now getting printed. So that creates for a president's presidency and a president just more people are nibbling at you.
Then if you look at, obviously, the stakes after 9/11 you can have more attacks, they're on the homeland. Right? So you had you had Pearl Harbor and then you had 9/11. Between that period of time you didn't have to worry about attacks in America of the kind that we now have to worry about. That obviously raises the stakes just in terms of the decisions you make. Also now because as you know presidents are making, you know if you have as President Obama did a list of people in your desk drawer that you want to kill and you were making the decision to have that drone fire, you're making decisions day to day just to kill people.
GOLDBERG: Stay on that just for a minute. You write very feelingly in the in the article about, about moments like that one minute you're deciding whether to kill someone. Let's call it what it is. You're, your counterterrorism chief is coming and saying in the next 30 minutes so-and-so is going to be in a place where we can kill him. And if you don't kill him he might kill us. And then the NCAA volleyball championship team comes for a photo op and you have to go out there and make light banter about volleyball. What do people say about, what the shrinks say about this capacity? Well, I mean no human has the capacity to toggle that.
DICKERSON: And also by the way if you say the wrong thing at the volleyball court that could be the thing you have to respond to for the next 24 hours.
GOLDBERG: Admittedly it's hard to say the wrong thing in a volleyball ceremony.
DICKERSON: Well, well, you know, ceremony what when you've got an entire structure of partisan media on the other side waiting for you to slip up —
GOLDBERG: You can inadvertently insult volleyball. Well you then you've got a 24-hour news cycle.
DICKERSON: But what what they said, what the psychologists say is essentially if you believe that willpower is a muscle — which most of them do, although there is a little bit of debate about this — you're constantly having to engage your willpower to restrain yourself and to check yourself and to ignore the critics. And there are now more of them and they're saying things that irritate you more deeply and you constantly have to keep your restraint on. Well, if it's like a muscle, you know, if you hold on tight for something after a period of time you're just not going be able to hold on tight to it anymore. And so you know you, you are unable then to deploy your willpower focus and attention to the super-important crucial stuff that can pop up on your day at any moment. So, and also another thing happens. Eisenhower, who was one of the great life-hacker presidents who thought about how he did his job in the best ways to do it, assigned himself vacation all the time. It's why he played 902 rounds of golf in his presidency, which today we know presidents would be — they are criticized.
GOLDBERG: They are.
DICKERSON: So he was he basically built vacations into his presidency because he knew the job was so tough that he needed to b able to take a break from it.
GOLDBERG: This is the guy who won World War II.
DICKERSON: Right, exactly.
GOLDBERG: And he knew what pressure was.
DICKERSON: Exactly. And he knew that in order to operate effectively under pressure you needed to give yourself some some room.
GOLDBERG: I was always in the camp of people who said that, let Barack Obama smoke. Smoke all he wants. He could get off cigarettes after the presidency.
DICKERSON: Right to smoke, golf, do whatever you need to do. Because also, by the way, if you were running for presidency in which you need to be there at that tending the moment every moment, you've got a bad presidency.
GOLDBERG: Let's talk about another problem related to the choosing of a president. And that's what we campaign on and what we expect people to campaign on. They campaign now on grandiose promises. If they came out, if a candidate came out and said 'Look, people of New Hampshire, I want you to know that I've already appointed a team to plan out who I'm going to appoint to run the cabinet and cabinet positions. I've appointed teams to think about our priorities for the first year.' People in New Hampshire would say, and the media would say, aren't you awfully presumptuous. But you make the argument in this in this article that that we should judge people — Mitt Romney you used as a perfect example, judge people on —
DICKERSON: Well, because when they get into the job, by the time they've gotten the job they are both not trained for it and don't have the time to get up to speed before they actually have to take the job. So any corporate merger that was of the size and complexity the president of the American presidency takes about a year and a half to do and it has teams and teams and teams of lawyers and analysts to create the proper governing structure for the new entity that will emerge from the, from the merger. OK, you get two months as a president and it's all happening under the glare.
GOLDBERG: You're also exhausted.
DICKERSON: You're exactly right, you're exhausted.
GOLDBERG: You just ran for president.
DICKERSON: And you've been trained in the running for president to believe in skills and instincts which all mostly need to be shed once you get into the presidency.
GOLDBERG: What do you mean?
DICKERSON: Well, so you've been trained to basically attack an opponent and basically give a speech and that's what will get you through to the next thing. A lot of times in the presidency there is no opponent and there's no speech that can be given. If you're focusing on the speech you're not focusing on getting the job done. Also when you're president, it is me or the other person. It's a binary choice that you offer people when you're trying to sell health care legislation to people, it's a whole complex series of issues you're trying to get them to believe in. Not just is it good or is it bad. And one minute you might be debating on some piece of wrong news about preexisting conditions. The next day it might be coverage rates the next day it might be insurance companies. You got to tend to all of these fires whereas in a presidential campaign all you can basically say is my opponent is bad. No matter where you start in the conversation you can pretty quickly get to my opponent is bad. And that's where you want to be on a health care debate, that's awfully hard to do. So you're where do you get that testing skill. That's really hard you have to basically either learn it on the job or have been a politician. You had to deal with that at the gubernatorial level.
GOLDBERG: There's a great, I think it's Hoover's quote, who is then, this is stepping back away already recognizing this — says that when you pick a doctor you want to pick an uncommonly good doctor, when you pick a lawyer you want to expert lawyer, but when we choose the president we all of a sudden decide that we want a common man. Yeah, go to that. Go to that psychological need, maybe a need created by the press to some degree but go to that psychological need to have someone who's like us when you're bringing in fact is, is a presidency that demands someone who's not like us.
DICKERSON: Right, well there's a great political science [book] called the "Paradoxes of the American Presidency" and there are lots of these. But you want, yes. So Americans want a president who can hang with them. So drink a boilermaker in Pennsylvania or go bowling or eat pork rinds. And yet they want somebody who is more like a king. Somebody who is so uncommonly spectacular that they can handle all these things in his unruffled way and not weighed down by any of the human problems of the job that we talked about earlier in terms of the psychological strain. And so you have this, but, but in the American system you have basically, Abe Lincoln is the great example. And Gautam Mukunda at Harvard, who's made a science of looking at the way we pick presidents, says you know ... both the genius and the danger in the American system is somebody with no experience really, like Lincoln, can arise and be a, you know, a, perhaps our greatest president and then somebody with lots of experience can rise into that can go through into the job and be a terrible president.
GOLDBERG: Who is an example of that?
DICKERSON: Warren Harding or, or—
GOLDBERG: Anybody from the modern era?
DICKERSON: Well you could say, I mean so people would say Jimmy Carter. I mean he was a naval engineer, he was a governor and he'd been successful in his campaign. So he seemed pretty well set up for the presidency. I mean the governor certainly enough is a job that has a lot of the same challenges the presidency. Some people would say George Herbert Walker Bush, although he's having, there's been quite a reevaluation of his presidency and the standards that he tended and carried on and left for the president after him, which we now are very much thinking about in terms of the maintenance of the presidency. So Herbert Walker Bush is undergoing some reevaluation but in that time at the time if you don't get reelected it's basically, you know, being a one-term president is a lonely club to be in.
GOLDBERG: No one will judge you a successful president.
DICKERSON: And there was nobody, nobody more — well, you could argue, but I mean nobody was more well-qualified for the presidency than George Herbert Walker Bush in terms of the variety of experience he had and the things he'd seen in spending time in China.
GOLDBERG: But as you said before, he fell into, there is a kind of a plate shift —
GOLDBERG: Right, when, and caused by issues that can be a whole lot of our conversation. But but he operated in the presidency according to the archaic standards of that one standard was that compromise was a value positive value. Right?
DICKERSON: And also, you know, communication has since let's say Kennedy been overvalued in the presidency. And he [Bush] was coming after the Great Communicator so his kind of a scattershot syntax was seen as a deficiency for him.
GOLDBERG: The Great Communicator who said once that he couldn't imagine someone who's not an actor being president of the United States, which is actually an amazing statement.
DICKERSON: FDR said basically the same thing to Orson Welles, which is true. You need to be able to inhabit the role in the moment that you need to inhabit it but you can't then think that the all the world's a stage. Yeah. there are parts of the presidency that happen where nobody is looking and that's two ways, and building the coalition for the first Gulf War for George Herbert Walker Bush and in managing the end of the Soviet in the end, ending the end of communism. He did lots of work, patient, thoughtful, expert-level work based on his previous experience that helped the world order, but it was not like out on the flashy stage and it was hard to campaign on. And that's a way in which one of the reasons we were, you know, we want to look at the presidency is pay attention to the stuff that happens outside of the camera lens and recognize its importance because the overemphasis on the theatricality of the presidency where now we have a kind of real-time constant theater with the president obscures the actual more important parts of the role.
GOLDBERG: I want to come to the current president. Is it useful at all that this current president is breaking the presidency in some ways?
DICKERSON: Yeah, and you can see it both. Let's say you're a Trump supporter. You're a Trump supporter and you say he's blowing through all these stupid rules and getting stuff done. You know, he's making he's making potentially good trade deals with China, right. China is offering after the president threatened them to maybe start buying more U.S. goods. He's getting some progress that going with with North Korea. You know he got a tax bill through, he's breaking or he's getting rid of all these regulations. Now you're a Trump supporter when you're in that role and you're saying he's not bothering with all the criticism. He doesn't care about it. He's getting stuff done for me. And that's really great. He's being a very efficient president for their team.
Now if you're a Trump critic, of course, you say yeah and there's a cost for all of that. There is a cost when you run through a tax bill that, with no, even without really even having a conversation with Democrats. A) It's a cost because it's unbalanced and it helps certain kinds of people it doesn't and doesn't help other kinds of people. It also sets up a kind of government where nobody cares about bipartisanship anymore and you're governing just for your 33 percent. He cast aside the national role of unity that a president usually plays. Well, there's a huge portion of effort to African-Americans, Latinos, people who are non-white in America who feel the kind of danger from his presidency that President Trump played on with voters who felt a danger from the Obama presidency.
DICKERSON: And so he is leaving things either unattended or exacerbating problems. This of course is the view of the critic who looks at him not participating in the in the norms of the presidency who says he's doing deep damage that will then pop up in other places as a result of this presidency where he's basically just doing what he wants and not kind of feeling any fealty to a lot of these norms of the office.
GOLDBERG: Could you imagine a situation — let me ask you this as a preface to the question is Donald Trump the least qualified on paper, person to be president in American history?
DICKERSON: Yes, unless you see the job is one where there are no qualifications for the presidency. And you know — But, but I think in my view of the presidency, because he's great — here's what, here's where I think where we are, I get to yes, is that he brought to the presidency these negotiating skills he talked about. And he brought to the presidency his time in business. He has not run the presidency like a business he has run it like a personal — I mean the number of people who've been either fired or resigned is a chaos presidency. There's just no way around that. That's not the way any successful business in America would run today. And the reason that that creates problems is again it leaves things unintended. It creates a situation which you have leaks constantly which creates this over drama in the American presidency.
GOLDBERG: Most presidents, though, to be fair most recent presidents would have been fired by their board of directors had they been CEOs of major companies. I mean you know you could look at George W. Bush in Iraq. You could look at, you could even look at Barack Obama not fulfilling his promise to enforce the red line and a board of directors saying hey you made a promise and you didn't keep to it. I mean, you could you could go back and look at all sorts of presidential failure and say that they didn't run the White House according to the standards of a multinational corporation.
DICKERSON: Well, right.
GOLDBERG: Let's still clip that for Bill Clinton for moral failings. You know, I don't know if he would have survived.
DICKERSON: Well, but then you bet. The reason the analogy with the presidency and business isn't apt of course is that a president as CEO has so much more power. The reason the president isn't CEO is on the hook to the board of directors. They have all the power. Presidents don't have all the power. And end and their board of directors are essentially the Congress. But one of the problems with the American presidency is we don't allow for a mistake making so that there's so much time spent saying nothing, nothing's going wrong here. Everything's fine. There is none of the adaptive learning that is central to success in modern business.
GOLDBERG: So you have, and you have a lot of nerd fantasies related to the president. Say one of the nerd fantasies is that a president would level with the American people which is to say I mean I've thought this to imagine, imagine at the State of the Union a president gets up there and says the state of the union isn't that strong, in fact, right? Congress, I'm here to tell you we're not doing so well right now. And here are the following reasons why and here's what I think I can do and here's what you should do and maybe we'll get through it. It would be great and honest if somebody would say that, especially when it's true. But that's an impossible talk about an impossible presidency. That would be — the closest we've come to that is Jimmy Carter telling the famous malaise speech, right?
DICKERSON: Right. And you have to. That's why you have to set the expectations for the presidency outside of the individual presidents. And we have to think about it's why some of the people have reacted to this are focused entirely on President Trump. My view is the only way to evaluate him is to understand the presidency as it exists right now and then you can decide whether his failings are his alone or whether they are the failings of the presidency the way it currently exists where you don't have a really a partner in Congress where you are overloaded by all kinds of duties that aren't actually central to what you should be facing as your central core. But then outside of that we need to think about the presidency so that we have better expectations for the job. And when we pick these people because in the moment you're, your, people don't think about the anything other than what's happening in that moment and that's the case.
GOLDBERG: You talk about a little bit about the reaction of, a lot of reaction to this article went, been out for a little while now. One of the interesting things that I've seen is people saying you're making some critics, I think, many of whom haven't actually read this article — another sign of our age right there — who have said, 'oh you're just making an excuse for Donald Trump, the presidency was fine when X person was president or a white person president. And Donald Trump has ruined everything and you're covering for that.' I mean you've seen some of that. What's your response to that?
DICKERSON: Well the one is, as you say, it's, here's the funny thing about social media right now. So if I were to say to you, you know, I don't like "Duck Dynasty" because I don't like dramas about waterfowl. You would say you are a ridiculous person. That's not what that is. If I were to say I don't like the "Iceman Cometh" because I don't believe in refrigerator repair. You would say you are a ridiculous person. Yet on social media you are allowed to say this piece is wrong because of the headline. So no there's no penalty for not having engaged with the ideas of the piece. So most of the people who felt that way didn't engage the ideas with the piece. If you do read the piece you can come away with two conclusions you can do because it describes all the complexities of the presidency and then the ways that various presidents and experts who thought about the presidency think it should be run to manage this moment of complexity in life.
So the idea is there is only one president and there is going to only be one president. So there is given the complexity and how hard the job is there is a certain set of systems you're supposed to set up and the way you're supposed to run it in ways we could improve it. So looking at the presidency that way, if you are a, if you are not a supporter of the president you would say, gee, the presidency is like brain surgery. So we need a brain surgeon. We can't just pick someone. And just quickly to interject. Michael Leavitt, who was the secretary of Health and Human Services, was governor of Utah, argues that business people, one of the challenges to having a businessperson in the White House is that they actually are not. When you've been successful in business you have a set of patterns and approaches that work in your business and you don't change your mind a lot because those patterns have worked really well. Rex Tillerson of the State Department, precisely right. So when you get to the presidency you have to engage a talent that you're not trained for as a business executive which is throwing away all the things you know. There's a great book called "What Got You Here Won't Get You There," but that's what you need in the presidency. That's why Donald Trump as a business executive. And this notion that a business is active would improve the job has always been misguided.
But then, back to the back to this idea of the presidency is brain surgery. Some people can look at the complexities of the job and say I don't agree. I think a person can basically just blow off these parts of the job and be focused on his core ideas because of all the complexity don't manage complexity. Basically do the things you can do focus on trade, cutting regulations and keeping America safe. Let all the other stuff go by the wayside, take the hit. But you're focusing on doing the things that you actually have control over. In the current system in the way it is now and that would be the best argument for what President Trump has been able to do if at the end of history we decide that the regulations that were removed did indeed increase economic activity in a way that broadly helped America. Because one of the unintended problems in America right now is the inequality that is not being addressed unless economic. This is the theory of the Trump administration. Economic activity is so robust that suddenly broad prosperity does start happening. If it doesn't happen. Then he will have missed a signature challenge of the time. So it's going to take a long time to figure out this current presidency. But I think that you have to the back to the original question about the criticisms. I found that the people who did read it. There was obviously a lot of favorable response but then people said well yes but this or that will never happen. There are plenty of places you can tweak and debate the argument and that I felt was really —
GOLDBERG: I want to come in, in a minute, to what you think should happen, if there's some way of fixing this very messy situation. But I want to, I want to talk about a person for a minute who ran unsuccessfully twice for president who has some qualities now that we believe a president should have as a national unifier, and that person is John McCain. Sen. John McCain. I come to the subject of McCain through the prism of this of this question of whether a president ought to try to be the unifier of the country. Until Donald Trump, we have experienced presidents who at least pay lip service to the idea that one once you're elected -- even if it's by 47 percent or 51 percent or however it splits -- elected by the American people, you're the president of all the people. Donald Trump is the first president who really doesn't pay even lip service to that to that notion.
Thinking about John McCain -- obviously because there's a, there's a person with a sufficiently heroic backstory and a record of service that, that -- he plausibly is one of those figures who could unite people around a common cause. He didn't, obviously, win the presidency. So there's that. But the question is, do we make people in America anymore who could inhabit the presidency and truly unify at least, I don't know, 60, 70 percent of the American people, around a common cause?
DICKERSON: Well I think a crop of people who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are probably going to show us some amazing leaders. People have been tested in battle. People who come from outside of Washington, which is where we rightly should look for our leaders at the moment. And so, and then who can rely on their heroism and sacrifice to their country, which is really at the center.
You go back to the founders -- that's at the center of it, is your character and its relationship to the country. Well, their character was shown in battle for the, you know, in the service of their country. So that starts them out in a really good place as a president because they can speak with authority in a way that it's very hard for just the chattering class to criticize.
Now the question is, how much is that a part of the presidency? How much is that really? So John McCain, who has that moral grounding and who kind of has a fingertip feel that, that would have probably guided his presidency to kind of, you know -- he was receptive to the notion of a national kind of psyche that needed.
GOLDBERG: I guess what I mean about him is that there's a man who seems to inhabit -- who seems to seek the center and seek unity rather than discord.
DICKERSON: And he ran his presidential campaign in 2000 on the idea of two big ideas. One was campaign finance and the idea that the forgotten class that Donald Trump talks about was being forgotten because basically those lobbyists had their hooks into any piece of legislation and they were thinking about their, their clients and not regular people. That was one thing.
But then the other was he talked constantly about trying to inspire a next generation of people to be inspired in a cause greater than their self-interest. The idea that there was a national call to sacrifice and service that a president could bring everybody to. Who knows if that would have happened? Who knows if he could have pulled that off? But that's a fascinating idea, because right now we see the country cleaving, and we see the president engaged in, you know, helping that cleavage take place. One of the things --
GOLDBERG: That's the unusual thing, that the president is trying to widen the chasm, not, not, not bridge it even further, even rhetorical --
DICKERSON: And what is -- because obviously Lincoln widened the chasm, but the difference is what is the chasm widening or bringing together in the service of? Are there values undergirding whatever action you're taking that are a part of those values that the founders put in the system? If it's -- if you're doing it just for yourself and to maintain your political viability so your team can win, then you're not keeping faith, faith with what the founders created.
And the reason the founders are so interesting is, you know, a lot of times when you look back, you think, well that was, you know, in the horse-and-buggy era, things were different. But they embedded in the system a set of values that can still exist today and that everybody has to try and keep faith with today. That was the thing it was -- the structures they set up were pretty darn good too. But even if the structures change and the presidency changes, those values still need to be protected.
And that's what McCain would have cared about. Now, McCain as a manager -- not so sure he would have been great as a President McCain as a policy, having deep interest in policy and he is also, he was also -- and as a, as senator are quite impulsive, and he would he would tell you that himself today. Right. And so how would that have manifested itself in the presidency?
So he would have had a lot of challenges. And by the way, also, the boring stuff of the presidency -- that takes place not in the limelight. How would he have been in working through all of that? The final point is he would've believed a lot in Congress and therefore would have probably made a lot of effort in the kind congressional realm of the job in a way that this current president --
GOLDBERG: Let's finally go to fixes the extent that you want to be prescriptive. It sounds as if you're, it sounds as if you're describing a set of really impossible challenges. We've moved so far from the original conception of what the presidency should have been. And maybe those conceptions were wrong they were 18th century conceptions, early 19th century conceptions, what a president should be, and they just simply don't work in the current moment. But what would you do if you were king? If you were king, you might appoint someone a king to handle all the symbolic parts of the presidency. But if you if you were king for the day how would you fix the presidency? And I think, as important, fix the expectations.
DICKERSON: Yeah, well, the expectations are where you have to fix it. So that is -- and that goes to the campaigns. I would fix the expectations we have for presidents, people understanding the complexity of the job. That it's complex and the constraints presidents feel because of the complexity built into the job, the constraints built into the job by the founders and then the additional ones we've highlighted here which are new, just kind of understand that in the presidency.
And that's a way to evaluate the current president, but also we pick our next ones. And that means, when you talk about presidential attributes in a campaign ,you should do that, you should in fact talk about the attributes of the job. Then I think that includes talking about how they would run as president.
Now, you're never going to be able to squeeze serendipity out of life. So it's not like there's a test you can give somebody who tells you whether they're going to be a good president by engaging in this kind of conversation. Do you know how to manage a team? What was the biggest risk you took politically and how did it pay off? Getting some sense of them engages the nation in a dialogue about these these things which then present -- gets everybody ready for what governing is going to be like. And it sort of begins this expectations changing during the campaign.
It also, only if you're talking about attributes of the job is fewer hours that you can make in seen promises about things you're going to do, because those promises tend to shape your presidency. And so we want fewer of those insane promises. We want candidates to be, to feel embarrassment when they, when they say, I'm going to change it all tomorrow, when President Trump said I alone can fix it. People should snicker -- not at him, but at the idea that any president can alone fix it.
So changing those expectations and then, the other thing that I don't know how you change, is the partisanship, because a president has to engage with Congress. But we saw in the farm bill. In May of this year, where basically they were unable to get what used to be a bipartisan bill through Congress, in part because the conservative Freedom Caucus outmaneuvered Speaker Paul Ryan. Now this may have to do with Ryan's retiring and all of that but this is a bill that pretty much used to be able to get through on a bipartisan agreement between the left and the right in the business of the government could be done.
Until that partisanship is, is at least diminished, until people are not rewarded by their partisan broadcast channels for their heroic actions in green rooms and arm, and are rewarded for heroic action made in the service of compromise then, then you're not, then presidents are going to continue to be hamstrung. I'm not sure how you fix that.
GOLDBERG: John Dickerson, I think we should have "Face the Atlantic" every week
DICKERSON: Every week.
GOLDBERG: So I think we should be chatting about the presidency.
DICKERSON: Keep talking about this cover.
GOLDBERG: This is "The Atlantic" May 2018 issue, "How the Presidency Became Impossible" by John Dickerson. John, thanks very much for doing this.
DICKERSON: Thanks Jeffrey for assigning it and for doing this.