Newsweek Uses Same Excuse for Obama as Carter: Presidency Too Big for One Man

November 17th, 2010 4:30 PM

In the November 22 issue of Newsweek magazine, Daniel Stone defended the Obama administration by blaming the institution of the presidency for failures rather than the chief executive himself: "The issue is not Obama, it’s the office....Can any single person fully meet the demands of the 21st-century presidency?" The same argument was used to excuse an overwhelmed Jimmy Carter 30 years earlier.

The sub-headline for the piece read: "The presidency has grown, and grown and grown, into the most powerful, most impossible job in the world." At one point, Stone explained: "Among a handful of presidential historians Newsweek contacted for this story, there was a general consensus that the modern presidency may have become too bloated." A January 13, 1980 Washington Post article made a similar conclusion about the beleaguered Carter administration: "Voters have lowered their expectations of what any president can accomplish; they have accepted the notion that this country may never again have heroic, larger-than-life leadership in the White House."

Post writer Walter Shapiro went on to describe how, "Some voters have entirely discarded textbook notions about presidential greatness and believe that Carter is doing as good a job as anyone could in facing new and difficult problems and in coping with an independent and restive Congress." He actually lamented the fact that "a sizable segment of the electorate...still applies traditional standards in assessing Carter's performance in office."

Later that same year, in a Christian Science Monitor story entitled "Carter and the Eroding Presidency," writer Richard J. Cattani cited Stephen Wayne of George Washington University, who claimed: "There's something institutional about the decline." Cattani noted how "Wayne and others...see a weakening of the presidency since Vietnam and Watergate that makes it difficult for officeholders to fulfill expectations."

In a July 7, 1986 cover story for Time magazine, Hugh Sidey largely dismissed the notion of the unwieldy presidency as he assessed the success of the Reagan administration: "Reagan has reasserted the force of individual leadership. Americans heard for years that the presidency had grown too complex for one person to manage, that the office had been crippled. Reagan seems to slide through a presidential day with ease....It may be that his principal accomplishment has been to restore the prestige and plausibility of his office."

In 2010, Newsweek argues that the White House bureaucracy has grown far beyond the ability of one executive to manage it all. Stone cites the post-9/11 era under George W. Bush as "the most striking expansion of the office in recent years" and notes that despite President Obama's campaign rhetoric of making government more efficient, various new departments have been added or proposed. However, the piece never goes so far as to embrace conservative calls for limited government as a solution to the supposedly "most impossible job in the world."