Q&A: Jeremi Suri, author of The Impossible Presidency

The question of whether the office of the Presidency is too unwieldy with its ever-expanding duties has once again engaged pundits. Most recently, journalist Scott Dickerson’s article raised the issue, a piece which includes the recent study by Jeremi Suri, The Impossible Presidency (New York: Basic Books, 2017). Presidents often used similar rhetorical messages–from Washington to Franklin D.Roosevelt. Suri views one of the mounting obstacles to the presidency as being a discursive problem. Interestingly, the use of language, so central to the presidency, with its surprisingly similar messaging overtime, produced unintended, and often times, inverted outcomes in its collision with capitalism and technology. Suri is currently Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and Professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas, Austin.  

JUNTO: The technicalities of the presidency—its source of power, legitimacy, and even the grey areas from which presidents have constructed norms are accessible to the lay reader. The book’s colloquial prose mask its theoretical underpinnings. Would you elaborate on that aspect of the work?

SURI: I try to bring Marx and Foucault in with others. Language and fetishization are [treated] as opposites. Marx focuses on the commodity as fetish, but I think good words often act as touchstones that often take us away [from something important]. This is the problem with fetishizing. What we lose sight of is that the engine of history is dialectical. 

JUNTO: The role of language is central to the presidency. Both George Washington and Andrew Jackson cultivated a paternalistic relationship with the American citizenry. But the former used a protective language in a generation that would never have agreed on the primacy of popular opinion. The latter took a more defensive tone and advocated for a strong executive branch. How did you view the use of presidential language and the ways it expanded the power of the presidency?

SURI: Jackson adopts a communitarian language to justify violence. The economic opportunities of the white citizen were hindered. He turned to an aggressive policy of Indian removal into a defensive language of opportunity; where it gets really interesting is he also has a critique of capitalism. It’s different than Lincoln’s use of language to justify capitalism, Jackson is not justifying the kind of industrial capitalism that Lincoln justifies; he critiques the movement in the direction industrial capitalism [versus] the communitarian argument of opportunity. And so that is the populist part of it; it appeals to people obviously along racial lines, but also to a community spirit; that’s what gets lost in it. And so what we have to understand, is that the rhetoric of genocide, which is what this is, had all kinds of manifestations of race and violence associated with community and opportunity; they are not actually dichotomous, they are one and the same for Jackson.

When citizens such as Saul Bellow felt that F.D.R. understood him, he is [also] saying F.D.R. understood me but also found a way to connect me to others, Jackson is actually disconnecting. Jackson explains a problem then tells people what to do. F.D.R. is telling you in a sense, what not to think, and encouraging you to think in a new way. He uses the radio to inspire and encourage to help people find their own solutions, and get them to move out of their spaces of suffering and get them to think about spaces of joining and spaces of innovation. Whereas Jackson is reinforcing and further encapsulating the paradigmatic way of thinking for those who are frontier settlers, who are angry about elites back home. It takes someone who is more skillful with language and quite frankly has a firmer normative grip on what they are doing to use it as a liberating possibility.

[the incremental change]…It builds upon itself—it is path- dependent, and so it is first of all why we need to know the history; because its built-in, its part of the epistemology that undergirds the way we talk about things, and creates a directional movement in the nature of the office that is hard to resist; otherwise it becomes easier to take on more power and take on doing more things. 

JUNTO: Incremental shifts in the emphasis of the office by presidents meant that by the time we get to Kennedy, he is talented but also frustrated in a way earlier presidents were not. The limitations of the office create discursive problems that hamstrung contemporary presidents. Would you talk about that arc?

SURI: One way of understanding what I’m uncovering in my research is that over time presidents are having conversations about more and more things, and it becomes harder to focus the time needed to get the right words. The Lincolnian moment when he has time to articulate what the nation might be, presidents don’t have the time nor perhaps the skill to do that after World War II, and that’s the kind of mess we get into. Race also becomes an easily distorted subject, because if you’re not having a conversation about it, it is there and everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. It comes in and out of focus and becomes selectively deployed. I very vividly remember when Obama came to Austin in 2014 at the University of the Civil Rights Act in the LBJ Library and we had Carter, George Bush, and Clinton. And we were all expecting Obama to give a major race speech. But, he didn’t want to do anything to harm conversations he was having on health care, terrorism, and the like. To create the discursive space they want presidents actually have to take some of the conversations away.

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