Dr. Jeremi Suri’s message to students Thursday was part history lesson, part call to action.
Suri, who traveled to Heidelberg from the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a history professor and global affairs scholar, gave the Minds@Work keynote Thursday. Using his most recent book, The Impossible Presidency, as the framework for his talk, Suri argues that the successful presidents of the past created unrealistic expectations for every president since JFK. And, the resulting problems for American politics are huge.
“The problem is, we talk the presidency and presidents but we don’t know the history of the office,” said Suri.
The image on the cover of The Impossible Presidency depicts JFK in the Oval Office, standing by a window, head bowed. Suri said the photo conveys the idea of “bearing the burdens of the office.” Additional images of a statue of George Washington (the father figure president), Abraham Lincoln (the opportunity creator president), as well and FDR (the national healer president), capture “how the office, even as big as it is, is still small,” Suri said.
In a way, it’s a Catch-22. The Founding Fathers envisioned a more limited role of the presidency and now, it’s a victim of its own success; its vastness has created limitations that make it nearly impossible to fulfill expectations. The most powerful office in the world is set up to fail.
“This institution,” Suri said, “has become so big that we’ve forgotten who we are.”
But it’s not about big or small, Republican or Democrat. “It’s about priorities,” he said. “It’s about what you care about.” Today’s presidents, he suggested, are too busy to do what really matters: to serve the values of our society.
“We are less divided today than we were in the 18th century. We are. But it’s not about division. It’s about leadership and it’s about the office,” Suri said. “Leadership is about bringing people together and then helping them to find solutions.”
That’s where his “generational call” to the students comes in.
“Get involved and make institutional reforms to better serve the needs of our time,” he charged. “Go into them, learn about them, reform them to serve the values we care about. … It’s time for us to do this today!”
He encouraged students to let history inspire them to make a difference.