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The Problem of Presidential Isolation

At its inception, the presidency was a small institution with limited power embedded in a system of separated powers that fragmented and shared power. George Washington neither had nor needed a large bureaucratic machine to assist in presiding over the executive branch of government. Armed with a personal secretary and three department heads (the origins of the presidential Cabinet), Washington’s reach was more limited, power more circumscribed, and responsibilities less onerous than modern presidents. A small institution required a small number of assistants to make it work, and for nearly 150 years, the presidency as an institution remained small, and the powers of the presidents variable but generally limited.

SIZE MATTERS: But as the presidency grew, becoming less a one-person operation and more of an institution, the needs of the president grew.  “The president needs help” was the conclusion of the FDR-era Brownlow committee, and with the Great Depression, then World War II, then the Cold War, then the war against terrorism, demands on the office grew, responsibilities increased, and the institution swelled in numbers. This led to a thickening of the institution as it became less flexible and more moribund. Today, a new president appoints over 4,000 people to various executive branch positions and agencies, and the need to manage the institution of the presidency has become a demanding and time-consuming task.

FROM CONTACT TO ISOLATION: During the campaign period, candidates often have a close connection to voters. The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary, coming early in the selection process, require candidates to press the flesh, meet every day Americans, and attend a seemingly endless array of meetings in parlors, rubber-chicken dinners, and coffee clutches in living rooms across the state. These voters expect each candidate to appeal directly for their votes. But once the campaign is over, as journalist Kenneth T. Walsh reminds us in his 2013 book Prisoners of the White House, a protective bubble of isolation envelops the president and the process of pampering and isolation begins. Getting the royal treatment can be intoxicating, and some presidents actually begin to believe that they deserve such adulation and obedience. After all, how special must one feel when every time you get in a car, all traffic is stopped just to allow you to pass?

Along with this special treatment comes a loss of personal freedom. Presidents can’t “just” go to a ballgame, or out to a movie with the family. Public access to a president must be limited for obvious security reasons. This cocooning of the president limits his access to the public as it limits the public’s interactions with the president. Kings and Emperors faced the same difficulty: how to keep in touch with my people? In Henry V, Shakespeare has the king disguise himself on the night before the Battle of Agincourt, where he mingles with his troops unrecognized, and listens to their fears and concerns as the battle approached. With this, the king was able to calibrate his appeal to his troops, fully coincident of their hopes and fears.

But today, who can speak truth to the president’s power? And to whom can a president unburden himself in those moments of stress and self-doubt? From whom can the president expect direct and candid advice? Presidential isolation and loneliness are two edges of the same sword. This is dangerous for both the president’s mental health, and the political health of the nation.

AND THE PRESIDENT MUST DECIDE  In this atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, the president must decide, make tough choices, guide the nation. But, as President John F. Kennedy noted in the foreword to speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen’s 1963 book, Decision-Making in the White House: The Olive Branch or the Arrows, “the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer - often, indeed, to the decider himself.” To govern, Kennedy reminded us, “is to choose”.  Presidents must choose “among men, among measures, among methods.” He continues, “The heart of the Presidency is therefore informed, prudent, and resolute choice – and the secret of the presidential enterprise is to be found in an examination of the way presidential choices are made.” It is in this rarified air of isolation, adulation, and loneliness that presidents choose.

THE RISE OF PRESIDENTIAL MANAGEMENT:  One of the consequences of this swelling of the presidency has been the need to self-consciously manage the vast array of Cabinet departments, staff, and agencies of the executive branch, and a failure to manage well has often led to disasters (e.g. the Iran-Contra scandal, the rollout of Obama Care, the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan). Today, management is one of the core responsibilities and key challenges for presidents.

PRESIDENTIAL ISOLATION:  One of the frequent problems posed by the swelling of the presidency is the isolation of the president. The presidency is sealed off for security reasons, and presidents rarely get out among “the people.” Every presidential step is carefully orchestrated, and there are few spontaneous moments and fewer still interactions with average citizens. Into this bubble of protection, the real world and real world problems rarely penetrate.

Which dominates, the president or the presidency? The individual or the institution?  Strong presidents can stamp their personalities and working styles on an administration; weaker presidents can sometimes be managed by the executive branch mandarins. Thus, the person and the process matter.

It may sound odd to think of a president as isolated, but isolation is surprisingly easy to impose on a White House, and simultaneously hard to see and defeat. Staying “connected” and aware in the rarified air of the White House bubble is one of the key, yet often unrecognized challenges for any presidency. Decision making is this atmosphere if fraught with menace. It is of course necessary to protect the person of president in a dangerous world, but beyond security demands, a different form of isolation descends on the president.

Emerson reminds us that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” But there are times when the institution gets in the way of seeing that shadow.  The institution of the presidency surrounds and often isolates the occupant of the office, and the president’s staff may exaggerate this isolation by waiting hand and foot on the president, satisfying his every need, pumping up his ego, telling him what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear, imprisoning the president in his protective bubble and making him the captive of his own inflated illusions.

Even in the best of circumstances, decision-making roadblocks litter a president’s path. And as historian Barbara Tuchman so effectively reveals in her instructive book The March of Folly, there is a persistence of “wooden-headedness” in political leaders that often leads them down a dangerous path for themselves and their countries. In a world where the leader is “protected” from reality, decision-making mistakes can become political disasters.

How, one might rightly ask, can the president, who sits atop the world’s finest information gathering machine be isolated?  There are two primary sources of decision maladies: Individual, and Organizational. On an individual level, a variety of cognitive biases plague decision makers. Some leaders (e.g. George W. Bush) rely on faith-based reasoning rather than evidence. Others, such as Donald Trump, exhibit powerful psychological needs that overwhelm reason and compel them to misconceive reality. And there are other cognitive biases that often infect the decision process: confirmation bias, anchoring, inflated self-assessment, failure to seek out contrary arguments, a rush to judgment prematurely, or an unwillingness to entertain doubt. And while it is always risky business to engage in psychological evaluation from a distance, presidents do exhibit persistent patterns of information processing, interactions with staff, and expressions of individual needs over time. Thus, speculation over the root causes of executive isolation, while tentative, can be quite revealing. Did Donald Trump’s refusal to abide by the repeated admonitions of his staff and attorney general that he did not win the 2020 presidential contest dissuade him from trying to overturn the election results? Was this a function of poor staffing or a president’s ego needs at work?

There are also key organizational impediments to sound decisionmaking. Some administrations are plagued by groupthink (the smoothing over of disagreements or conflict in an effort to induce conformity and team cohesiveness), offering the leader a narrow and pre-agreed upon version of reality. A team of clones may emerge rather than a team of rivals. Still others face a plethora of “Yes-Men” who fear losing status within the administration and end up feeding the leader information that supports his preferences or psychological needs rather than presenting a hard truth to the president. Some administrations rely on staff and ignore cabinet officials who are better positioned to give the president advice that runs counter to the president’s preconceived notions.

Former LBJ staffer George E. Reedy, in his 1971 book The Twilight of the Presidency, noted that

There is built into the presidency a series of devices that tend to remove the occupant of the Oval Room from all of the forces which require most men to rub up against the hard facts of life on a daily basis. The life of the White House is the life of a court. It is a structure designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to serve the material needs and the desires of a single man…. He is treated with all the reverence due a monarch. No one interrupts presidential contemplation for anything less than a major catastrophe somewhere on the globe. No one speaks to him unless spoken to first. No one ever invites him to “go soak your head” when his demands become petulant and unreasonable.

In a 1973 essay by Russell Baker and Charles Peters in The Washington Monthly, the authors examined the LBJ White House, the Kremlin under Joseph Stalin, and the Reichschancellery under Hitler, seeing similar patterns of obsequious servitude on the part of top staffers and cabinet officials who were afraid to speak truth to power, thereby inviting catastrophe. Much the same was observable in the Trump presidency, as chronicled by numerous former staffers and Trump’s own attorney general William Barr in his recent book One Damn Thing After Another.

IS THERE A CURE?  In the end, isolation is a personal and intellectual phenomenon. Presidents are isolated because they are uncomfortable with a process that is open and fluid, unable to psychologically face their own limitations, or unwilling to demand that they receive the unvarnished truth. Richard Nixon’s demand that he be protected (isolated) by what came to be called his “Berlin Wall” of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman was an example of isolation by choice, not circumstance.

If isolation of the president is so ubiquitous, are there are organizational fixes or antidotes to isolation that might be helpful? Administrations must be conscious of asking disconfirming questions before a key decision is made; test multiple theories, engage in contrarian thinking, and create multiple information systems. George H.W. Bush was laughed at as the “Rolodex President,” but using his multiple outside sources kept Bush in touch with voters and their concerns.

Do presidents learn on the job? Rarely. But some do find ways to get more rather than less information.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, restricted by his polio from going out among the people, knew he had to get a reading of the public’s temperature. He thus encouraged his wife Eleanor to serve as his eyes, ears, and legs, and report back to him on her findings. John Kennedy seemed to learn from his Bay of Pigs blunder, and in the Cuban Missile Crisis, developed a more open process, designed to elicit more diverse views and to stimulate rather than restrict debate and discussion. George H.W. Bush tried to send his son George W. messages in the lead up to the war in Iraq, but if those messages got through, they were dismissed.

 A top staffer could be identified as a “Devil’s Advocate” who is responsible for insuring that the process of decisionmaking is open and that a rich variety of sources are utilized. Likewise, a system of multiple advocacy such as Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” can bring in a wider range of voices into the decision process. And making administrations more diverse can bring in interests and voices traditionally excluded.

There is no panacea. If no one is willing or able to announce that the emperor has no clothes, the naked president may not be able to see that indeed, he is naked. Perhaps all that can be hoped for is to make improvements in individual decisionmaking and organizational responses that will help improve things at the margins. But anything that can be done to diminish executive isolation makes for a better, if still imperfect decision environment.