We live in a world defined by complexity. Much of what we are able to achieve in our day to day lives, which would have seemed magical just two generations ago, is the result of endless entanglement with people living and working and dreaming elsewhere. Technology and communication as we now know them require inputs from many disciplines and many places. Local life is never entirely local. Nothing is entirely simple.
There is, naturally, a great hunger for clear and simple shared experiences, and they are increasingly hard to find. That simple clarity can happen in our personal lives, if we are fortunate, and yet we also celebrate the beautiful complexities of our closest connections, because they add richness to our lives. While the presidency provides the most high-flying of bird’s eye views, the job is not and cannot be simple, and it cannot be done at a comfortable distance. The presidency is non-linear, kinetic, and fraught with the quicksands of moral urgency. Doing the job well requires an agile, cogent, unselfish attention to detail, an ability to learn continually, and a sense of duty to all those one is sworn to serve.
Personal judgment may be one of the most valuable virtues a person can bring to the highest office in our democratic republic, but that does not excuse any commander in chief from deep involvement in the complexities that shape our lived experience. Integrity requires preparedness for the non-linear tide of challenges that floods into the Oval Office.
Stubbornness and principle are not the same thing. In the White House—maybe in public service in general—principle means having the moral integrity to cope with the wild diversity of issues that come at you. To govern effectively, you need to know your mind in a way where First and Fourth Amendment rights, immigration issues, as experienced on all sides, geopolitical threats and risks, and how we finance various kinds of energy production, form a map of our adherence to core values.
In a job where every word one speaks is effectively an action that impacts the shape of the world, personal opinion is not a useful guide to success. The presidency is a call to absolute service in a mind-bendingly complex world.
We are accustomed to watching the hair of younger presidents turn white with the work, as if we can read the vastness of the responsibility they grapple with coming over them and defining their physical and spiritual health. We are also getting used to something subtler: being president is not exactly like being “the boss”. One after another, presidents seem to discover that though everyone sees them as “the most powerful person in the world”, they are not really able to set the agenda or run the show. The service aspect of the job—being responsible for getting the best outcomes in wildly diverse and often harrowing situations—sets the agenda.
This means even mapping the plans and policies favored by one’s mind onto the day’s calendar is a multidirectional tide of challenges. At this moment in our history, it seems a salient insight that the most power-heavy job on Earth is consequential not in the demands the office-holder places on the world, but rather by how honorably and effectively the president meets the challenge of deep service to all those who wield less power.
The desire for clarity and simplicity in the language of public life is understandable, but the complicated tangle of competing influences to which the president must attend are a value added. Though anyone might struggle to find the optimal rhetoric to relay this dynamic, it is because we are able to interact with, think through, and collaborate to solve, so many bewilderments of the human condition, that we can aspire to the anti-entropy Buckminster Fuller identified as the mission of human intelligence.
So presidents should not look to blind us with black and white oversimplifications; that shows fear of the far-reaching responsibilities that come with the job. Presidents who want to earn the public trust and live up to the burden of history should embrace the complexities of the society they are responsible to and be willing to grow and evolve with the job.
A lot of this learning will be about how to avoid sowing discord and chaos, but meaningful service cannot be achieved by tightly guarding the status quo either. The president must be steward and signal of the next steps in our collective effort to improve everyone’s access to personal sovereignty, dignity and resilience. Any president who will succeed must recognize that the power of the office does not belong to the president, but rather to the limitless network of human connections that define every act as one of service. It is in recognition of that ethical entanglement with all people that one truly comes into the office.
On any given day, it is for all of us as citizens to own the office, model this service-driven leadership, and signal that we expect the same from our president.