The “loneliest job in the world” is a reference to the presidency of the United States, supposedly a supremely lonely and isolating job because of the enormous responsibility that it entails.
William Howard Taft, upon handing over power to Woodrow Wilson, warned the newly-elected president that the job would leave him feeling isolated. “This is the loneliest place in the world,” Taft said, referring to the White House. The warning, apparently, didn’t quite hit home; Wilson said later that he had been taken by surprise by the feeling of aloneness. “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible,” Wilson went on to write.
A few decades later, then-president Harry Truman was asked whether he agreed with Taft’s assessment of the White House. Truman said that he did, and went on to describe all the work involved in the presidency. His day, he said, began at dawn and went on until midnight:
“I get up at 5:30 in the morning and get to that desk at 6 o’clock, and I stay there until eight. Then I come over here and sit at this desk until one o’clock or so, go over there and have lunch with the family – if they are at home – and go bcack up there and transact some business, and try my best to take a thirty minute nap if I can. I get back over here at 3 o’clock and stay here until the business is wound up…”
The phrase is also closely associated with a 1961 photo of John F. Kennedy by the New York Times photographer George Tames. The photo shows JFK, just months after coming into office, standing at his desk in the Oval Office with his head bowed. The photo’s caption originally read, “Awaiting the arrival of French Ambassador Herve Alphand, the President ‘as is his habit’ snatches a moment to read an official document, leaning over the table.”
Writing in LawFare, Quinta Jurecic argued that the view of the presidency as lonely grew naturally out of the “Hamiltonian” view of the office, which stressed the importance of an energetic, determined president in order to keep the country running on track. Hamilton wrote, “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks. . . . A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”
Jurecic noted that then-president Barack Obama was almost over-playing his experience of loneliness and responsibility, something which she contrasted with then-candidate Donald Trump — but added that this may have been inevitable:
This Hamiltonian vision of the presidency lends itself well to Obama’s public expressions of anguish and moral seriousness. After all, if Hamilton is right about the presidency, Obama should feel that he, and he alone, is responsible. He should feel deeply the weight of his terrible burden. Perhaps the nature of the office as “the loneliest job” is intrinsic to the singular structure of the presidency itself.