Professor talks about historical progression of presidential role

Anna Lassmann

The role of the president has grown too big for one person to handle, Jeremi Suri, public affairs and history professor, said in an LBJ School of Public Affairs lecture on Wednesday.

“I think one of the core arguments is that with each generation, the job of the presidency has grown exponentially,” Suri said.

Early presidents were not responsible for as large a range of issues, including healthcare and environmental protection, as more recent presidents, Suri said.

Oliver Bjornsson, public affairs graduate student, said when the president has to deal with so many issues, it’s difficult to accomplish anything. 

“So much of what’s being done is just advocacy and executive orders instead of concrete action,” Bjornsson said.

The modern presidency began to take shape under former President Franklin Roosevelt as a way to address social justice issues, Suri said.

“Roosevelt was able to use his power in a very healing way,” Suri said. “The office was able to grow to solve the needs of the people.”

Once former President Lyndon Johnson took office and dealt with civil rights and the Vietnam War, the presidency began to break down, Suri said.

The increased burden of the presidency is reflected in the increased pressures felt by modern Americans, Suri said.

“As (the president) does more, the expectations increase,” Suri said. “The presidency is an extreme case of what we all feel. We’re working two to three times as hard as our parents and achieve less.”

Suri referred to the recent presidencies of former President Bill Clinton and former President Barack Obama as examples of the public’s high expectations for the president and the firm resistance from the opposing side that prevents policies from moving forward.

“I think they are some of the most talented people to be president,” Suri said. “Their intellectual range and quickness is incredible. … They are the Michael Jordans of politics.”

The personal beliefs of the person in office matter, Suri said, giving the example of Trump’s reaction after the riots in Charlottesville as a demonstration of his stance on social justice. 

LBJ School researcher Gordon Abner said Trump is not fulfilling the many roles of the president.

“He’s doing less … to the detriment of the country,” Abner said.

Suri said there are three paths forward to create a functioning presidency — do less to affect more, believe in the funding of knowledge and divide the executive branch.