Isolation a Threat to Modern Presidency

Security, 24/7 media scrutiny and greater workload have made it harder to connect with everyday folks.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill, June 6, 1933, at the White House. Standing, left to right: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser of New York; Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner of New York.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill, June 6, 1933, at the White House. Standing, left to right: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser of New York; Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner of New York.

One of the biggest challenges of the modern presidency is finding ways for the chief executive to keep in touch with the country despite the isolating nature of the White House, a panel of presidential experts said Thursday night.

Historian Robert Dallek pointed out that it used to be easier for presidents to stay connected before today's era of extremely tight security, an enormous workload, and all-encompassing media scrutiny that prevents a president from interacting with everyday people in a normal way.

Dallek expressed admiration for two presidents in particular – Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. He said both seemed to have an intuitive understanding of what the country wanted and needed, an intuition that other presidents could rarely match.

[READ: Obama's Ethnography Project Key to His 2012 Victory]

Dallek made his comments during a forum with former White House advisers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Also participating were Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has advised President Obama; Mary Kate Cary, former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush; Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, and Mack McLarty, former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton. I moderated the discussion, which was focused on my new book, "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill, June 6, 1933, at the White House. Standing, left to right: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser of New York; Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner of New York.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown signing the Wagner Unemployment Bill, June 6, 1933, at the White House. Standing, left to right: Rep. Theodore A. Peyser of New York; Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; and Sen. Robert Wagner of New York.

The panelists agreed that modern presidents find it liberating to escape from the White House and make frequent trips around the country, as President Obama did in his visit to Texas Thursday.

Duberstein said Reagan tried to talk to as many people as he could during such trips, and he paid close attention to the crowds, even if he had to do it by looking through the windows of his armor-plated limousine. On one visit to New York, Reagan joked about how many people gave him a "one-fingered" salute as he drove by.

[READ: 1980s Nostalgia: Poll Finds Reagan Beats Obama in a Landslide]

Belcher defended the role of presidential pollsters. He said the pollsters help keep the chief executive in touch with public opinion, and this is important to a president's success.

The panelists agreed that first ladies have played a crucial role in helping presidents govern and keeping them grounded. Barbara Bush was an individual of strong character and an invaluable source of support for her husband, Cary said.

McLarty said Hillary Clinton played an important role advising her husband on policy. And Duberstein pointed out that Nancy Reagan kept track of whether her spouse's staff was serving him well and following his agenda. Dallek said Eleanor Roosevelt was important in keeping Franklin informed about what was going on around the country through her frequent fact-finding trips.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.