It turns out that being president is hard.
“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Donald Trump told Reuters in a newly published interview. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Then again, Barack Obama’s tenure was marked by a similar lament. “I think it is important to remind everybody that . . . I’m president, I’m not a king,” he told Univision in January 2013, discussing the possibility of suspending deportations of non-criminal illegal aliens. “I’m required to follow the law.” The executive was, he acknowledged, only one of three branches of government, and that presented structural challenges to advancing his agenda.
Elected, like his successor, largely on his charisma and promise to transform “the system,” President Obama found himself flummoxed by it. He, too, thought the presidency would be easier.
In private, Obama was more forthright about the challenges of the office. Plotting an approach to the Arab Spring that would appear supportive of democratic protesters and also protect American interests proved so difficult, he “told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China,” the New York Times reported in March 2011. “As one official put it, ‘No one is scrutinizing Hu Jintao’s words in Tahrir Square.’”
Where Trump’s comments seem tinged with wistfulness — O, to enjoy unburdened the breeze at Mar-a-Lago! — Obama’s were more often tinged with frustration.
The modern presidency, as Barack Obama ultimately discovered, is an impossible job. The president must be the leader of his party, but also the leader of the nation — “the only national voice in affairs,” in the words of Woodrow Wilson, who reshaped the office in the 20th century. And he must be not only the leader of his nation, but “the leader of the free world,” on whom the oppressed can look with hope. He must be all things to all people everywhere — and yet he must remain a citizen among citizens, abiding by the law.
Obama’s response to this conundrum was to abandon the law in favor of, as he liked to say, “the right side of history,” an ends-justify-the-means solution of which Wilson would have approved. Those same things that he acknowledged, as late as 2013, were beyond his powers, he would go on to do: granting lawless de facto amnesties to nearly half the illegal population in the United States under his DACA and DAPA orders; declaring that neither the nuclear arrangement hammered out with Iran nor the Paris climate accords were “treaties” so that he could withhold them from Senate consideration; and unilaterally manipulating the Affordable Care Act when its measures proved politically costly.
Donald Trump is being mocked as a buffoon for discovering that the presidency presents unique challenges, especially to those who seek sweeping and dramatic overhauls of American policy. In fact, he is only learning the same lesson as his predecessor — and he could do the country a service merely by rejecting his predecessor’s reckless response to that lesson.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.