Book Review

Why the presidency is the hardest job in the world

A look at the demands and expectations of the nation’s highest office

November 3, 2020

What makes a good president of the United States? Are there certain traits that naturally lend themselves toward an individual’s success in the highest office in the land? Do we expect too much from the individuals we choose to be president? These questions are just a handful of the ones that author John Dickerson tackles in his fascinating new book, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.

Dickerson, easily one of my favorite political analysts, has written one of the most engaging overviews of the American executive branch. As I read it in the run-up to the 2020 election, it helped clarify for me the real and imagined roles of the presidency and gave me an appreciation for the men who have held the office in our history. One thing it confirmed for me: character matters.

“Character in many ways is everything in leadership,” remarked former U.S. President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. “Character is really integrity.” As you read the book, you can’t help but come away with a new appreciation for Ike and his deep knowledge of effective leadership. That seems to have been a major objective for Dickerson in writing this book (he said in a recent interview he fell in love with Eisenhower as Dickerson researched his administration for this book).

High demands of our nation’s leader

Why is that so important as a reader? Because in this time where leadership too often is defined as having the loudest voice or the deepest grievance, our nation’s greatest leaders have often provided helpful examples in opposition to those things. In fact, as you read this book, you come to realize that our most successful presidents have cast a vision that is accessible to more than just the Americans who voted for them. As one example, Dickerson uses John F. Kennedy’s prediction that television would allow presidential candidates to speak directly to Americans––and then doing just that in his campaign.

Beyond the poetry of campaigning, this leadership trait of inclusion extends to the prose of governing, as well. Dickerson discusses how it informs the team-building process of presidential administrations. He highlights a quote from famed management expert Peter Drucker who said, “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I.’ They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’” When a president takes this approach, he or she will be sowing seeds for potential success as the administration takes flight after Inauguration Day. 

Throughout the book, Dickerson explores the various constitutional roles required of the nation’s chief executive as well as the ones Americans have now come to expect the president to play. Our Constitution is very clear that the president is the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. As the years have passed, though, we’ve also asked the president to be what Dickerson calls our “consoler in chief” when tragedy strikes our nation. When a deranged white supremacist murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, former President Barack Obama used the moment to discuss God’s grace––a particularly poignant theme the nation needed to hear in that dark hour. But why is this vital for our nation? 

Dickerson answers that by pointing to former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan who said, “speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. They have not only been the way we measure public men, they how we tell each other who we are.” Thus, a president’s words matter, not only because they have the ability to soothe or unite, but because they connect the current occupant of the White House with those who came before him. While speeches can play an important role in binding up the wounds of a nation, it is probably unrealistic to expect one person to resolve all the issues that come across the president’s desk. Dickerson shows us that it was never designed to be like this. 

Designed to be different 

Our Founding Fathers meticulously built our democratic republic, carefully weighing how each “grain” of power would affect one branch over the others. Their expectation was that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would work in tension with one another, balancing out the ambition and moves of the other. The Founders were especially concerned with ensuring the president was kept in check. Why? Dickerson writes, “The founders were realistic about human weakness, but they believed that because they were so aware of its shortcomings, they could design a new government that not only accounted for man’s weakness but used it to keep balance.” To underscore this, Dickerson also includes a foreboding prediction by Benjamin Franklin: “The executive will always be increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in monarchy.” The last word should send a shudder down the spine of every American since that is what our ancestors revolted against in 1776. 

Ultimately, that continual use of the lens of history may be the most important takeaway from Dickerson’s book. He continually provides the reader with perspective. Whether it’s the quadrennial assertion that this election is the most important election of our lifetimes or the claims of certain disaster if one candidate or the other prevails, we live in a time devoid of such perspective. That can be especially worrisome when every individual has a megaphone and can broadcast their hottest takes for the world to see. As Christians, though, we are called to a higher standard, one of discernment. I have found that reading books like this highly-informative one help push me further along the road toward wisdom and understanding. After reading The Hardest Job in the World, those will be two traits I always look for in a president (or candidate for any office) from now on.

Photo Attribution:

Bettmann / Contributor

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24