Presidential Leadership: The Balance of Power with John Dickerson

Published

This week on the World Reimagined podcast, host Gautam Mukunda sits down with John Dickerson, taking a look at leadership through a Presidential lens. Dickerson shares his take on the challenges facing the oval office, and what characteristics make one successful at leading from it.

To lead is to exercise power. And to do it well, one must have expertise and character. Perhaps no one understands this better than the President of the United States of America. What can we learn from the Presidency about how to use power – and when?In this episode, Host Gautam Mukunda speaks with John Dickerson, Chief Political Analyst at CBS news, about what it takes to wield the power of the Presidency. John has reported on the presidency for over 30 years. He has reported for Slate, Time Magazine, and CBS news. His most recent book, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency is a New York Times Bestseller.

People require having been tested in their lives so that when they get the keys to the fancy car of the presidency they have some familiarity with what it's like to deal with serious things and be on the spot or else they're going to make decisions and have reactions that are going to be unsorted and disorganized.
John Dickerson
I think the overwhelming evidence of both history and just human behavior suggests that those who've been successful -- whether it's surviving the marshmallow test or any other use of willpower -- to restrain yourself is an important quality.
John Dickerson

Follow @GMukunda on Twitter or email us at WorldReimagined@nasdaq.com

Books Referenced on World Reimagined Season 2, Episode 3:

The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency, by John Dickerson

Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It's Everyone's Business, by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro

Taming the Prince, by Harvey C. Mansfield Jr.

Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, by Gautam Mukunda

Guest Information for Presidential Leadership:

John Dickerson is CBS News Chief Political Analyst, Senior National Correspondent, and CBS Sunday Morning Contributor. He recently published his third book, and second New York Times Best-Seller, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. Dickerson was previously co-anchor of CBS This Morning. From 2015 to 2018 he was the anchor of “Face The Nation," and CBS News’ Chief Washington Correspondent. Dickerson is also a contributing writer to The Atlantic and co-host of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast and host of the Whistlestop podcast.

Dickerson started his career with Time magazine, covering economics, Congress, and the presidency. In the last four years of his twelve at the magazine, he was its White House correspondent. From 2005 to 2015, he was Slate magazine’s chief political correspondent. He has covered the last seven presidential campaigns.

A native Washingtonian, Dickerson graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a specialty in American Studies. His mother, Nancy Dickerson, was CBS News’ first female correspondent. Dickerson is the author of On Her Trail (Simon and Schuster), a book about his mother. He is also the author of the New York Times best-seller Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History (Twelve Books). He is the recipient of the Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency and the David Broder award for political reporting.

Transcript:

Gautam Mukunda:

There are lots of leaders, but there's only one leader of the free world. No one faces more scrutiny and no one's under more pressure. One of America's most celebrated journalists takes us inside the room where it happens to explore what it takes to wield the power of the presidency.

Speaker 3:

I think of it is trying to create a new world. The kind of world that we perhaps have always wanted to live in.

Speaker 4:

Climate change is a systemic risk to the entire economy. You cannot diversify away from it.

Speaker 5:

To intervene, when your country, your company, your family need you to do so, that's leadership character.

Speaker 6:

The World Re-imagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from NASDAQ.

Speaker 7:

Why the leaders fail? Unwillingness to learn, a fear of showing their vulnerability, and a fear of being themselves. Lack of authenticity.

Speaker 8:

Character of a corporation is not the personality. Character of a corporation is the integrity and the morality of the company.

Speaker 9:

So without truth and trust, there is no democracy.

Gautam Mukunda:

It's an hour before noon on January 20th. A crowd is gathering on the National Mall to watch something that only happens once every four years. Because today at exactly 12:00 PM on the steps of the US Capitol, one person is going to be entrusted with what is arguably the most powerful job on the planet. And I'm not just talking about military power or political power. Just look around right now at all of these people, some of whom travel thousands of miles, just to be here at this moment and catch a glimpse of the president. That's power, the power to change the world.

Gautam Mukunda:

So what is it about the presidency that grabs you?

John Dickerson:

I think where it came from is from the minute I started covering the presidency, which in one way or another started in the early nineties, Time Magazine used to do these covers of the presidents. And the first one that I remember was How George Bush Thinks, and it was a picture of his head and it was a cartoon, and inside there were all these things. And so from the beginning of coming to presidency, I was always fascinated with how it really worked and how each individual president just did the basic job. And in the course of covering the presidency and covering presidential campaigns, you're always trying to make sure you're not doing it wrong. There's a lot of folk wisdom about campaigns and that's turned on its head, and basically it came from the desire to match up the reporting with what the job actually is. I spent so much time covering the job and covering people who wanted the job and always recognized this real disconnect between the way we talk about it and the way the job actually exists.

Gautam Mukunda:

John Dickerson has covered the presidency for 30 years, or to put it another way, six presidents. He's reported for Slate, Time Magazine and CBS News, and has written two books about the presidency. He's had more close contact with the inhabitants of the Oval Office than all, but a handful of people. John's newest book, The Hardest Job In The World asks if anyone in this day and age can even be a successful president, and if they can, what does it take?

John Dickerson:

Trying to solve for that has just always really interested me. And it interests me to this day because when you look at President Biden, people are making all kinds of judgements about his presidency. And they're based on a set of measurements that nobody bothers to ask whether those measurements make any sense or not. And so that constant, there's always fresh material, I guess, is the way I'm saying it too.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah. It's this sort of endlessly protean office that seems to reshape itself around each inhabitant.

John Dickerson:

And with the presidency, what happens is you get politicians and members of political parties invested in reshaping the standard by which you measure the office. So there's the debate about how to measure the office, but then there's the debate about the tools for measurement. And if you look at it now you see Republicans who are basically defining the office by what you can actually see. So because you can't see Joe Biden hopping around on Twitter all the time, it means he's not doing the job. It's a complete, total misunderstanding of the job. And yet that is a main talking point of the Republicans, and it doesn't do us any good if we're trying to figure out really what the presidency is and whether the person in it is doing the job the way should be.

Gautam Mukunda:

Could you imagine what Dwight Eisenhower and George HW Bush would say about people saying, "You're not doing enough in public." Could you imagine what the response to that would be?

John Dickerson:

Yeah. Right. It's like telling nuns that they should be out dating more, they would laugh at you. This is what is changed with our politics is you can say loony things and not be laughed out of the conversation, whereas no one would ever have even thought to raise that with Eisenhower, certainly.

Gautam Mukunda:

The president didn't always dominate American life. For much of the 19th century, outside of war time, it was senators, not presidents who played the leading role in government. In The Hardest Job in the World. John tells the story of how Sarah Polk, wife of 11th, president James K. Polk ordered the Marine band to play this song Hail to the Chief when he walked into a room so that people would know he was there. Can you imagine being in the same room as the president of the United States and not knowing it?

Gautam Mukunda:

We think of the presidency as this expansion, right? It just got bigger and bigger and bigger. That's not really true, right? It got hugely bigger under Lincoln and then it shrank again. So at least conceivably, you could ratchet back. It got hugely bigger under Wilson, then it shrank again. It got hugely bigger under Roosevelt.

John Dickerson:

Right.

Gautam Mukunda:

And it never shrank. It just kept increasing.

John Dickerson:

Yeah. So I guess I think of two things. One, there's the national security piece that got enormous.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah, The Cold War.

John Dickerson:

So it's The Cold War and then it's the war on terror.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah.

John Dickerson:

And so now that we are receding, maybe, certainly we're pulling out of Afghanistan. But The War on Terror, it's amazing when I think about how much we talked about ISIS and terrorism in the 2016 campaign and in 2020, it wasn't really talked about that much. The president basically founded his non state of the union state of the union on the idea that China's coming to take our lunch and we better all get our act together as a country and invest in all of these things or else we're never going to be able to compete, which I thought, "Well, it's an interesting argument." But when partisanship has done to nationalize our elections and basically turn Congress into a less effective body for the adjudication of public questions, puts all that pressure back on the presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.

Gautam Mukunda:

The United States depends on the president today in a way the system was not designed for. And that seems to be getting worse with time. The president runs the federal government, the world's largest bureaucracy. Presidents can declare a state of emergency, mobilize troops, even use nuclear weapons, all without consulting Congress. What does it take to use that unimaginable power successfully?

Gautam Mukunda:

This strikes at the heart, because I would say that with your most recent book and both of mine, I almost think we were engaged in a joint project. Right? I wrote my second book thinking I wanted to give the American public the tools to pick better presidents. And I felt like that was a lot of what you were doing in yours, or to make the presidency better?

John Dickerson:

Absolutely. Again, it's why I benefited from talking to you and from your work, because you had done that with Leaders and Leadership in a way that I had studied it from being a journalist, watching all of this happen. And then also interviewing people who had been practitioners, either presidents or those who worked for them about this gap between the image of presidents that we talk about in the press, the image that candidates present during campaigns, and then the job as it actually is. So I think where I still have some difficulty is where you helped me think about this and where you have more concrete thoughts is, okay, but what really works?

John Dickerson:

Because the data set is a little messy. And when I look at the Biden presidency, you have basically an old time-y president. I don't just mean that he's 78 years old, but I just think in the way of, he's returning all of these norms. So how you think through what skill set is required for that? So what always struck me as hard was I think I know the attributes that work in the office, but I don't know necessarily whether those attributes, in this moment, the whichever ones I would have identified, whether they're really the ones for the moment. And that's one of the fun things I'm trying to talk through and think through all of these issues is that it's a constant process.

Gautam Mukunda:

I tell executives when I teach them over and over again, the leadership selection is not a ranking problem. You're not trying to find the best person in the world, but it's like dating. You're not trying to date the supermodel. It's a matching problem. You want the person who fits.

John Dickerson:

Yeah. Yes. So to carry that further. So it's the person that fits and so the person who fits the most.

Gautam Mukunda:

Exactly, and that will change with time. Hopefully not like dating, but.

John Dickerson:

Yes, exactly. Right. So that's one of the reasons why the disconnect between what we talk about in campaigns and what we talk about in what the job actually requires. Again, thinking about when you first explained this to me, if it's a corporation, the set of people that you choose from have all been apprentice to up to a certain level. That's just so not the case with the people who were running. And the skill set too, I was reading Secretary Gates' most recent book on power. And it struck me in a way that I wrote about this and thought about this a lot, understanding how to use power and all of its different, weird aspects. It's one of the ways in which Donald Trump could have been an amazing president, because he has had to use power his whole life. So he could have a familiarity with it that somebody like Barack Obama never would have had because he just didn't use power because he was basically not in a position of dominance in his field.

John Dickerson:

But Donald Trump of course used power and understood power in this very narrow way. Not with all of its different facets that maybe even Obama who'd never actually had to use power understood better. But that notion that we elect people who have no familiarity with the volatile nature of power and it's many different uses, not just the brute force part, but the cajoling, persuasion, flattery part of power. And as I was reading Gates, I was just thinking we never talk about this, about what a skill it is to know how power works with other countries and to have a theory for how you use power. I can't think of a presidential conversation in which we've had that debate during a campaign.

Ronald Reagan:

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

Gautam Mukunda:

Politics is about power. Who has it, and what's done with it. The president has the most power, but as Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro describe in their new book, Power For All, not all power is institutional, and it can come in surprising forms. One of the most important is information.

John Dickerson:

When I first got to Washington, somebody explained lobbying to me in this way that has framed my understanding of it forever. And it was basically what happens is senators need information and they're understaffed. And so they turned to lobbyists, not because they take them out to dinner, but because they need information.

Gautam Mukunda:

Information, yeah.

John Dickerson:

And what ends up happening is the lobbyist gives you the information and you can go out and sound like you're intelligent about it, but it turns out what you're doing is really, you're just carrying their water for them. And this framed my understanding of lobbying in such a nice way. And I look for that also in the presidency to understand, we know about the weight of the office, but I want to know a little bit more about what it feels like to have that kind of power in your hands and how warping that is.

Franklin D. Roosevelt:

We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately, but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes, but they must never be a mistake with a result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.

Gautam Mukunda:

Information is power. And that leads to some surprising conclusions. For example, political scientists who have studied the issue are overwhelmingly against legislative term limits. Research by the Brookings Institution, Bruce Kane, Thad Kousser, and others, has looked at state legislatures that have imposed term limits. They find that the term limits significantly increase the power of lobbyists and special interests. Why? Government policy is incredibly complex. It takes time to understand. Term limits deprive legislators of that time. They have to rely on lobbyists instead, and that gives the lobbyist power they use to help their clients. So expertise is important, but it's just the beginning. What else do you need to use power effectively?

Gautam Mukunda:

When I re-read The Hardest Job, the thing that kept springing out at me is, and this is something you hear from presidents, you hear from leaders all the time, is character. Nothing is more important than character. And I will tell you, sorry, spoilers for the next book. I did not engage with character in any substantive way because I can't get people to agree on the most basic questions of character. What does that say for us?

John Dickerson:

Yeah.

Gautam Mukunda:

We need to judge a president's character if we want better presidents. Well, what do we do?

John Dickerson:

My solution to this, and it's why I lean so heavily on him. This is James Q. Wilson's definition of character, which has that two component part, so the empathy and the restraint piece. And the reason it was such a life raft for me was that I had the same view you did, or the same questions that you did. And because character is this balloon animal that partisans shape into whatever they want. And it can be a dog, it can be a fish. Although I guess you can't make a balloon animal into a fish, but do you know what I'm saying, they can basically turn it into, character, they can turn it into whatever they wanted for the purposes of either lifting up their candidate or denigrating the candidate of the other party. And so it becomes a meaningless thing.

John Dickerson:

Which is why when I was looking at, okay, what does the job actually require? If James Q. Wilson's theory of character is the operative one, then why is restraint important? Well restraint is important because it means you think of the long-term and not the short term, which is definitely something we can agree is a component part of the job. George W. Bush was thinking about the long-term challenges of the pandemic when he came back from vacation after reading John Berry's book about the 1918 flu, and told Fran Townsend, his Homeland security advisor, "Give me a national pandemic plan in case something like this ever hits us." We want our presidents to do that. We know that for sure.

John Dickerson:

And so that element of character felt very grounded for me, the idea that you need somebody who is not constantly being whipsawed by their impulses or by the challenges of interest groups or the news cycle, but has a vision for the future and that requires restraint and self-control, which is a part of character. So that felt solid even though maybe somebody who is a fan of Donald Trump wouldn't agree with me. I think the overwhelming evidence of both history and just human behavior suggests that those who've been successful, whether it's surviving the marshmallow test or any other use of willpower to restrain yourself is an important quality.

John Dickerson:

And then that notion of empathy, it seems to me again, politically empathy is not that useful. Certainly Donald Trump showed that you could be wildly successful by not being empathetic. However, once you become president of the entire country, unless you want to create the kind of discord and disruption that Donald Trump created, you need some ability to meaningfully hear the views of those who are not in your camp. And the jury is still out on whether Joe Biden actually, he has empathy coming out of every pore of his body because of his personal experience. But if it's an empathy that translates into governing where that's going to take some while to see if that pays off or plays out.

Gautam Mukunda:

So to wield the power of the presidency well, you need knowledge and you need character. Makes sense, but we don't pick our presidents by picking the most knowledgeable, highest character person in the country. We pick them via political campaigns. Is what it takes to win a campaign the same thing it takes to govern the country?

Barack Obama:

From sea to shining sea, yes, we can. Thank you, New Hampshire. Thank you.

John Dickerson:

One of the things I tried to figure out in the book is what happened to the line between governing and campaigning? In campaigning you tell people whatever you want, but then there are these things that constrain you in governing. And I wonder if a lot of the things that used to constrain politicians and that they limited themselves based on whether it's rules of decorum or rules of bipartisanship, or a set of public standards. When those all disappear, then you can just go stick with the one standard, which is ambition. I guess it's what the founders worried about, they knew everybody would have ambition. So the question was, did they have any virtue? Did they have any set of values and goals that were consistent with a thriving public good, that would constrain their ambition? And when it couldn't, was there a system in place to do that?

John Dickerson:

And I guess the notion of being a virtuous person in public, and the benefit you got from that, or get from that has disappeared. If owning the libs or discomforting the conservatives is the number one thing you need to do in your party, if that becomes the sign of your worth, instead of the opposite, which is restraining yourself to act virtuously, the market is telling you to behave in a way that actually turns out is totally consistent with your own ambition. It's not telling you to constrain yourself in order to rise by appearing virtuous.

Gautam Mukunda:

Did you ever read Taming The Prince, Harvey Mansfield's book on the presidency?

John Dickerson:

No.

Gautam Mukunda:

So, it's hard, right? Harvey is the most, you need to read everything with a magnifying glass to figure out what he's actually saying. But if I understand him right, and open question, what he's saying is that the founder's idea was to create a system in which your ambition would drive you to virtuous behavior.

John Dickerson:

Yes.

Gautam Mukunda:

The more ambitious you were, the more you would act that way.

John Dickerson:

Yes.

Gautam Mukunda:

And I know you've read Lincoln's Lyceum address, right? That's what he's saying. We need to channel people's ambition in that way. It seems like what you're describing then is it's another outgrowth of the divergence between campaigning and governing. That that fundamental psychological insight of the founding fathers and Lincoln sort of doesn't work anymore because of this dysjunction.

John Dickerson:

Right. Because now in a party, Donald Trump is the shining example of this, if you do things for the purposes of virtue at the expense of the accumulation of power or benefit to your party, you're not elevated from it. You're seen as a sucker. And the way I think this is interesting is the way it works in to sort of that the people who maintain these Washington codes have been fooling you and gaming the system to keep themselves in power and you out of power.

Gautam Mukunda:

When you're talking about how to use the power of the presidency, as well as it can be done, you usually end up talking about Abraham Lincoln. He was that rarest of combinations, both a great person and a good one. Perhaps better than anyone else, he balanced the reality of political constraints with the need to pursue larger goals.

Gautam Mukunda:

This is sort of an eternal dilemma of leadership. You can't be too far ahead of your people, or they won't follow you.

John Dickerson:

Yeah.

Gautam Mukunda:

But if you're not ahead of them at least a little bit, then you are definitionally, not a leader. I used say that with Lincoln, that the mystery of the civil war, one of many is, it's really hard to figure out what Lincoln actually believed on slavery. Because he was the greatest, in my opinion, the greatest politician to ever live. And he was always exactly as anti-slavery as he could be and still win elections.

John Dickerson:

Yeah.

Gautam Mukunda:

And as that target moved, somehow he flawlessly always moved, right? He was always at exactly that point.

John Dickerson:

And this is one of the things that I've learned and enjoyed learning and working on the book, because that goes totally against the way we think about leadership in the cartoon version of leadership, which is leaders don't read the polls, they make the polls, or whatever it was that Chris Christie said at the 2012 Republican convention. Which is not true, whether you read the actual polls or not, your sense of the public and how far ahead of the public you can get is a crucial job of leadership. As John Bayner said so often, 'A leader without followers is just a guy taking a walk." So those public opinion baths that Lincoln would take and the newspapers that he read to get some sense of what people could tolerate. And also by the way, what his new thing to believe in was. It's not just, I believe in X, this goes to your point, I believe in X and I'm just going to try and fit it into wherever the public is.

Gautam Mukunda:

Here's the thing about Lincoln though, he had no business being president. His total national political experience before the White House, one term in Congress. As I showed in my first book, Indispensable, he took a crazy series of fluke circumstances, from the fracturing of the democratic party, to the seating arrangements at the Republican convention, to catapult him into the oval office. But somehow he had the perfect alchemy of moral clarity, political genius, and indomitable will to carry the nation through its greatest trial. I doubt any country gets more than one Lincoln, but even if we're not fighting a civil war, we need Lincolnian leadership.

Gautam Mukunda:

So you've gotten to know more presidents in person than all but a handful of people I would imagine. You must get a sense of their character. Of the many people that are trying to be president, what do you look for that tells you that, gee, this might be the sort of person who knows how to not use power? Or how to forego an advantage, how to yield focus as it were, when it's not productive?

John Dickerson:

Again, you pointed this out to me, which is that if you look at the way Americans sort and pick their presidents, Lincoln was a really, it was a big gamble in terms of the experience he brought to the office, just in terms of resume. And then Warren Harding, great resume, not so good in the office. So I think if you have to pick, it's whether they've been tested and I don't necessarily know if that means tested in a job, but I think whether they understand what it's like to be in a situation where the stakes are so high, that if you have not been tested before, and didn't come up with some mental sorting technique for being able to function in a time of extreme pressure and stress, you cannot learn it on the fly. And my analogy for this is, I do a lot of things in public, speak in public and I go on TV and that would make a lot of people nervous. It did me at first, but now I have a certain facility with doing that and I can pretty much manage that.

John Dickerson:

So I played guitar once for John Prine at a tribute to him and in the audience was not only John Prine, but Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, a lot of other people whose music I adore. I was so incapable of playing the guitar I might as well have been beating it with a hammer. And what I felt in that moment was you can know how to be on stage in one context. But if you shift the context a little, it can nevertheless, still be so overwhelming that you literally can barely use your hands to play the guitar. And so my feeling is that people require having been tested in their lives so that when they get the keys to the fancy car of the presidency, they have some familiarity with what it's like to deal with serious things and be on the spot or else they're going to make decisions and have reactions that are going to be unsorted and disorganized.

Gautam Mukunda:

I love that because I tell my students that every question I ask, there is a right answer, it depends on the context. You can always start with that, and you'll get the right answer. Who was your favorite president?

John Dickerson:

I shift around on this. I think it's Lincoln, but for different reasons, just because of what he had to suffer through in his life and the mental strength he had, and also some of the choices he made. Two big things, one he demonstrated an ability to think out of his own experience. And then also that idea of negative capability, the idea of being able to be comfortable in uncertainty, and yet still be able to function to hold two opposing ideas in your head and not be unsettled and made uncertain about it. And I think of him probably above FDR, but there are presidents like Eisenhower and George Herbert Walker Bush, that I found more to fascinate me in my work that I would've thought of. More modern presidents I knew more about because I covered them. But Herbert Walker Bush was right at the edge of my coverage. He tended the office in the way that I feel is wise, so he would be my underrated character. That's a long answer to a simple question.

Gautam Mukunda:

It's my answer too, in fact, not just with Lincoln, but also Eisenhower and Bush. But Lincoln, I would always say that there are great people and there are good people, but there are very few great and good people and Lincoln pegs of the scale on both of those characteristics. In the course of your career, you've met a large number of extraordinary people. Who's the one who most impressed you and why?

John Dickerson:

Wow. It's such an interesting question. Because impressed you, for me there are a lot of people, I was impressed by them and then they lived up to that.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah.

John Dickerson:

Right? So, when you met them, so that doesn't really count, I think, because there's some people I've met, meeting John Prine, who I'd been a fan of, for a long, long time, then I did a piece and I spent a day with him and he was amazing in all of these ways, but I already had this elevated view of him.

Gautam Mukunda:

Somebody answered Nelson Mandela. I was like, that's cheating.

John Dickerson:

Yeah, exactly. I'm trying to think of who would be in this category of most impressed. Because one of the things that's coming out is John McCain.

Gautam Mukunda:

Sure.

John Dickerson:

So then you'd be thinking like, "Oh, come on John McCain? Everybody's going to say-" But here's what struck me about McCain that I didn't get. And then when I covered him, but he had spent so much time relearning all of the things that, not relearning, but learning the things that he missed when he was in prison. And listening to him, because I spent a great deal of time. And then when I covered him, listening to him talk about that period and all the books that he read, and the films that he watched and his sense of just this rapacious desire to consume everything because he had been deprived of it. Seeing that in person and hearing a person articulate that, fits I think into the category of what you're talking about.

Gautam Mukunda:

Yeah, absolutely.

John Dickerson:

John McCain had lots of weaknesses and I'm not saying he should have been president. I was impressed by that.

Gautam Mukunda:

Any last words, any benediction, any moments with the president that really leap out in your mind? Since I've got you, I have to ask?

John Dickerson:

One thing when I look back at the year of 2020, and I did some thinking about this because I thought this was this awful year that we all went through and that I covered a lot of people going through a lot of suffering and unhappiness. And we had the political turmoil and I became fascinated with the power and role that hope plays in people's lives. So hope is basically, there's happy talk hope, which is not useful. Hope is really this thing that you hold on to when you have absolutely no reason to be hopeful. That's its real power. And in the year of 2020, there were people that were so tested and in my work coming across those things that people held on to even in the face of all evidence that you should basically abandon hope because you've lost your job, your family members.

John Dickerson:

But in trying to decide what it is that gives me hope and what other people cling to, and if there's not an answer there to go find it. That just the role of hope in our private lives and in our public life has been something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. And I don't have an overwhelming conclusion to offer people, but except to say that the search for it and search for what to base your hope upon, whether it's religion or your fellow man or whatever gives you meaning in your life, has been something that I'm spending a lot more time thinking about after this last year than I did before.

Gautam Mukunda:

Well, that's profound. Thanks very much for coming John. We really appreciate it.

Speaker 15:

It is now my great privilege and high honor to present the chief justice of the United States Supreme court, the honorable Williams Hobbs Rehnquist.

Gautam Mukunda:

We look at the presidency for lots of reasons. It might seem that unless your name is Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., how to be a better president of the United States, however interesting, isn't the most immediately useful information. But we can learn a lot from the presidency because the power and scrutiny that come with it act like a microscope. If you want to understand how to use power effectively and responsibly, it's a lot easier to see it in a role so powerful that even small choices can have huge impacts. So we look at the presidency, not just to understand how the person behind the resolute desk can use power better. We look to help us understand how we can too. To lead is to exercise power. We can dress it up all we want, but in the end, that's at the heart of it. So what can we learn about power from the presidency? First and perhaps most importantly, choose who you give power to carefully, because once you've given it to them, they can use it however they want. And it's very hard to take it away.

Gautam Mukunda:

Second, remember that what it takes to get the job and what it takes to do the job can be very, very different. So change the system to narrow that gap if you can, but also try and find people who can do both. Third, remember that leading large organizations is incredibly difficult. In the case of the presidency, the job really is as John titled his book, The Hardest Job in the World. Perhaps the only way to do it right, is to focus on a few big things. So when you hear people making a big deal over small things, and when the president is dealing with everything from COVID to the economy, to Russia and China, almost everything else is small, keep that in mind. Fourth, precisely because power is so incredibly important, expertise and character matter. Expertise tells leaders what to do and how to do it. But character is what guides them to do what's good for everyone, not just themselves. It's what lets leaders pass up the sugar high of good headlines and bubble popularity and focus instead on the hard work of governing.

Gautam Mukunda:

Fifth and finally, remember this. It's a time of cynicism about politics and about leaders, and that's entirely reasonable. We see partisan rancor at a level the United States probably hasn't experienced since the 1850s. We've even seen a violent attempt to overturn an election. We've had a botched response to the worst public health crisis in more than a hundred years. And even before that, American life expectancies were dropping because of the opioid epidemic. We've seen the worst terrorist attack in American history and two disastrously mismanaged wars. And for 40 years, we've seen inequality skyrocket as the average American standard of living has stagnated.

Gautam Mukunda:

This is not a story of success and no one has seen more of how the last six presidents struggled with these issues than John Dickerson. But his response to that isn't despair, it's to remind us that even now the thing we most need is hope. Leaders can fail, it doesn't mean that they will. Our government hasn't served us as well as it should, but that's not fate. We can shape the presidency into an office where success is far more likely, we can elect men and women who will handle that office with skill and with wisdom. Have hope, because the quality of our leaders remains in our hands.

Franklin D. Roosevelt:

I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully-

Dwight D. Eisenhower:

I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, do solemnly swear that you will faithfully-

John F. Kennedy:

I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear.

Barack Obama:

I, Barack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear.

Speaker 18:

That I will faithfully execute.

Barack Obama:

That I will faithfully execute.

Speaker 18:

The office of President of the United States.

Barack Obama:

The office of President of the United States.

Speaker 18:

And will to the best-

Speaker 19:

World Re-imagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from NASDAQ. Visit the world re-imagined website at nasdaq.com/worldreimaginedpodcast.

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