Famed journalist John Dickerson on “the hardest job in the world”

September 28, 2020

John Dickerson has covered Washington politics for more than two decades as a reporter for Time, Slate Magazine and CBS News. He previously hosted Face the Nation, currently works as a correspondent for 60 Minutes and is the recent author of “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency,” which examines the complex challenges faced by our nation’s chief executives throughout history. In this episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick spoke with Dickerson about his experience covering presidents, why presidents often struggle with their transition to the White House, how we should view the presidency and how Joe Biden and Donald Trump would govern if elected in November.  

Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Dickerson for his take on President Trump’s recent refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election.

Dickerson: “My very first reaction is that the American system is founded on a structure. And that structure is the peaceful transition of power. You mentioned that [John] Adams and [Thomas] Jefferson were friends once, then became bitter enemies. But Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Whichever of us wins this presidential contest, the country will be okay.’ …There was a norm that he felt it was necessary to speak to. That idea of a peaceful transition of power is one of the things that makes America great.”


Marchick asked Dickerson about why presidents sometimes struggle with their transitions into office.

Dickerson: “John Kennedy said, ‘I spent so much time getting to be president. I wish I’d spent more time learning how to be president.’ …And when you talk to people who have worked in White Houses … they all say, ‘You walk in and you have all these plans, and you think it’s all going to be going one way, and then it absolutely is not as you expected.’ …Everything just starts flowing and you’re just in a constantly reactive mode. So the sooner you can get started thinking about what the set of challenges are going to be, what your organizational structure is going to look like, [the better].”


Marchick asked Dickerson if Joe Biden would need time to settle into the presidency and learn to manage the executive branch.

Dickerson: “He would kind of know where things stand, and he would have the reflexes and the sense of how the place is supposed to work better than anybody since George Herbert Walker Bush. …But Biden would need time just getting [his] team in place. …It takes a little while, once people are in their jobs, to get a sense of what you need because you’re reacting to events [and learning] how the various players work in their jobs. So while Biden would certainly start with a real head start, that period of acclimation is still really important.”


Marchick asked Dickerson if he thought President Trump would approach the presidency differently if reelected for a second term.

Dickerson: “I’m not quite sure. … He’s not a fan of systems [and] he’s not a fan of process. His turnover has set records for both the number of people in top spots and the serial turnover in those top spots. Nobody I’ve talked to or interviewed in any walk of life says that is a good way to run a railroad. And it doesn’t seem that the president is suddenly going to snap into believing in the benefits of structure, the benefits of patience and doing things by a system. So I think it would be the same kind of … challenges that we’ve seen in the first term.”


Marchick and Dickerson discussed why we should set more realistic expectations for presidents.

Dickerson: “I think the reason I wrote [The Hardest Job in the World] is to change our expectations about what a president can do. …To stop putting the president at the center of the American system for everything; to not think of the president as a celebrity who can behave like an action hero and get things done; to put more pressure on Congress to do what it needs to do. …The president leads an organization. It is not an office of one person. And the more we focus on the idea that it is an organization and that you have members in that organization who play crucial roles, powerful roles, roles that contribute to the improvement of American life, [the more] we may just think about the presidency differently and pay a little more attention to those other parts of the job.”