Rethinking the American presidency

By Max Stier | May 31, 2019

Last week, the University of Virginia brought together political insiders, top scholars and students to discuss aspects of the U.S. presidency. Speakers at the event included former White House officials and experts, such as President Bill Clinton and Andrew Card, chief of staff for President George W. Bush.

As a panelist along with CBS’s John Dickerson and former Obama deputy White House chief of staff Mona Sutphen, I participated in one of the working sessions at the three-day Presidential Ideas Festival: Democracy in Dialogue. I offered my take on how to change the presidency to make government more effective. Not just the individual, but the office as a whole.

The major points:

A charismatic president is not enough. Our country has changed since George Washington’s day. Government is more complex, and we have not adjusted our view of the presidency to align with the power the office has in today’s society.

We need to understand that the president should use the full capability of the government to solve our nation’s challenges. A charismatic individual alone cannot address all the problems in our complicated world.

Charisma enables a leader to communicate effectively with the public, but it’s not the only trait we should prioritize. The American people and voters need to focus on leadership skills and the ability to accomplish goals, choose key advisors and manage a large team.

We need to reduce the number of political appointees as well as the number of them that require Senate confirmation. Each administration appoints roughly 4,000 individuals to political positions throughout the government, with around 1,200 of those requiring Senate confirmation. Under the Trump administration, many of these positions remain unfilled with the president more than halfway through his term.

In 2012, Congress passed legislation to reduce the number of Senate-confirmed political appointees. We need Congress to take legislative action to further reduce the number of appointees requiring Senate confirmation. If the Senate focused on a smaller number of critical positions, we’d have better oversight and fewer leadership gaps, which are debilitating for the effective functioning of our government. The overall number of political appointees also ought to be trimmed substantially, enabling a merit-based and career workforce to better serve the public.

The Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition helps presidential campaigns, incumbent administrations and Congress address these issues and more.

The executive branch and Congress need to work better together. In today’s complicated and dangerous world, we need both a president who is an effective leader of the executive branch and a Congress committed to the health and capability of the executive function of our government.

Watch the video of the panel discussion to hear the rest of the conversation.

Max Stier is the president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service.


Max Stier