What should we look for in a president? I don’t mean the obvious consideration of whether a candidate’s vision for the country is compatible with our own. Nor do I mean political choices like health insurance, immigration policies, or other matters on which—given a candidate’s basic readiness—that would then determine our vote. I don’t even mean matters of character like being truthful, accepting personal responsibility, behaving ethically, and bringing out the best in the rest of us. Those are legitimate and crucial matters of ethical leadership, but not my focus here.
The foregoing issues by themselves set a demanding standard of staggering proportions. And still it is insufficient, for even spotless rectitude is not enough. After all, who would choose unskilled surgeons for delicate operations based simply on their unblemished integrity? There must be crucial skills and experiences that would render a candidate more likely to succeed or, at least, the lack of which would have the opposite effect.
Asking this question by no means suggests I have a credible list of answers in mind. In fact, I feel incompetent in the face of the question. I find I am more inclined to distrust answers I’ve heard from others (or even, from time to time, from myself) than to identify whatever crucial skills and experiences in which I can put my trust. But having even negative things to say is, in fact, having something to say. So I share here a few of the presidential requirements I’ve heard and my comments about them. I make no claim that these thoughts are sufficient or, in a few instances, are even accurate. But to get the ball rolling, let me report that I have heard it said that . . .
- Having business experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of business experience is meant by this statement. I will assume here it means understanding and using budgets, planning tools, assessments of risk, choice of markets in which to compete, how much inventory to have on hand, and other such tools of enterprise. President Obama was inexperienced on this measure. President Trump appeared to have such experience. However, it is normally overlooked by voters that while business leaders deal with these issues of micro-economics, a president must deal with macro-economics. One can be good at the first while being ignorant about the latter. I saw no mastery of macro-economics in either President Obama or President Trump as candidates, though Obama did learn; Trump might.
- Having management experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of management experience is meant by this statement, too. To separate it from the business experience just listed, I will assume here that this means more of the people, talent, and delegation portion of management. That includes infusing values including purpose, choosing executives, setting a leadership pace, delegating authority, assigning expectations, and evaluating performance—what a long-time CEO of the American Management Association called “getting things done through other people.” That is immeasurably more difficult in huge organizations. President Obama was deficient on this score; Senate service and a small nonprofit don’t help. President Trump, despite moving a lot of money and contractors, had only a small core set of employees, so his success in business did not depend on excellent management of huge numbers of employees. His amateurish management in the White House testifies to that inexperience. Ambiguity in assignments, over- and under-lapping of responsibility areas, loyalists inserted into chains of command, and inconsistent presidential behavior were and continue to be features of the Trump White House. Obama must have enlisted experts in his education, for he did not have it to begin with. Trump seems never to notice he has something to learn.
- Having held elected public office is essential in the presidency. I assume people mean (a) practice dealing with a public wherein everyone has a different expectation and (b) experience with the shifting and politically treacherous arena of dirty fighting. Trump and Obama both had a modicum of this experience, though clearly in different arenas.
- Knowing constitutional law is essential in the presidency. In terms of understanding the foundations of the job, this requirement seems critical, as does the relationship between the presidency and other branches of government. Obama knew it well. Trump did not and acts regularly as if his ignorance persists and, in fact, doesn’t matter to him.
- Being of superior intelligence is essential in the presidency. If so, Presidents Wilson’s and Carter’s stars would shine brighter in our history books. Obviously, a lack of intellectual curiosity (President G. W. Bush) and emotional interference with intellect (Trump) are handicaps, but superior intelligence itself seems not to separate successful from unsuccessful presidential performance.
- Ability to size up a situation and move quickly is essential in the presidency. In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, the character Samuel Daniel says, “While timorous knowledge stands considering, audacious ignorance hath done the deed.” True or not, we all know that some balancing with knowledge is important. The problem for a leader is in that balance, a wise measure of action with whatever degree of consideration is appropriate to the circumstances. Some aspects of the Constitution intentionally make government action slow, an irritating feature to an impulsive president, prone to damage carefully designed Constitutional systems in order to move more quickly. The Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.
- Understanding American history and America’s place in world history is essential in the presidency. Again, the Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.
As I admitted before making this list, these thoughts are neither complete nor well thought out. But for me they are a start. And for you, if you are so moved, they might be useful, even if only to stimulate counter arguments. I began the list not intending to make specific reference to Donald Trump or to Barack Obama, but found the impulse to use them for illustration too appealing to omit.