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.
Origin of “Loneliest Job in the World”
William Howard Taft, upon handing over power to Woodrow Wilson, warned the newly-elected president that the job would leave him feeling isolated.
Said Taft, referring to the White House: “This is the loneliest place in the world.”
The warning, apparently, didn’t quite hit home; Wilson said later that he had been taken by surprise by the feeling of aloneness.
Wilson went on to write: “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible.”
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 Kennedy, 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.”
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.
Use of “Loneliest Job in the World” in a sentence
- Facing crises both foreign and domestic, the president lamented the weight of what is often called the “loneliest job in the world,” where ultimate responsibility for the nation’s well-being rests squarely on his shoulders.
- Amid plunging approval ratings and a divided Congress, the occupant of the Oval Office is getting a firsthand taste of why the presidency is dubbed the “loneliest job in the world.”
- Historians often refer to the presidency as the “loneliest job in the world,” emphasizing that even with a vast support network, the emotional and cognitive burdens of leading a nation ultimately fall on a single individual.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.