The relationship between a president of the United States and the voters is a very complicated one, and difficult to measure. Nearly everyone has their own theory about who the good presidents are, the bad ones, and the ordinary ones. Evaluations change from generation to generation. The office itself evolves notably over time, especially as the communications environment is altered by more and more technology. Even the A-list, the historically most favored list, of presidents is continually be subjected to revision, re-evaluation and re-inquiry.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are likely to remain as the most beloved and respected presidents, but there are ambitious scholars and politically-correct fanatics who even challenge them. After that, certainty is reduced. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan are often rated as superior presidents, but each of them has their critics. Ulysses Grant used to be rated very low, but recent scholarship indicates he may have been treated too harshly by Historians. And so on.
But this debate begs the question about what qualities make a good president. In fact, someone may not have the conventional qualities and yet turn out to be important. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan come to mind in this category. And presidents with seemingly all the right qualities have turned out to be disappointing failures. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter come to mind in this category.
I contend that because the nature of the presidency is changing so much, the qualities that make a good president also changes significantly.
The current president, Barack Obama, came into office with an unprecedented lack of experience and previous office holding. His advocates contended this did not matter because Obama was a “new politician” whose destiny was to bring change. Others will disagree, but I think his lack of background for the job has been an enormous impediment in his first term, and likely to keep him from a second one. It was also his “luck,” or lack of it, to become president at a time of huge crises in the U.S. economy and society, as well as in foreign affairs all over the world. Can his “on the job training” salvage his presidency? Perhaps, but so far we do not have much evidence that he has learned how the presidency works and how to solve our critical problems.
If the next president is not be the current incumbent, then what the qualities the nation needs to find in his successor?
I repeat: what will be needed in 2013-2017 will not what was needed in 1841-1845 or 1861-1865 or 1913-1917 or 1941-45 or 1981-1985.
I suggest that first of all the nation needs a man or woman who understands how economics and capitalism works. Not necessarily a scholar or an expert, but someone either with real business experience or management experience. Part of this also includes an ability to judge others, be they associates or foes, accurately, and to have the ability to manage the impacts of others.
Second, the nation needs a man or woman who knows about the world. Again, not necessarily an expert, but someone who has knowledge about world history, and the nature of other societies in the world, especially those which have military and economic power.
Third, the nation needs a man or woman who knows how to behave in the rarified air of international politics, someone who understands that international relations, be they economic or military, are equivalent to chess playing, and not to a game of checkers.
Fourth, the nation needs a man or woman who has not only basic communication skills, but extraordinary ones. A president is always speaking for and to the nation. A great inaugural speech isn’t enough. A president also has to choose exceptional persons to speak for him or her, and to create a positive understanding of administration policy.
Finally, the nation needs a man or woman whose character, leadership gifts and human compassion is as large as possible, so that he or she can meet the huge challenges of the next four years (with so much in danger to be found here and abroad). Presidents are not saints. Presidents always have large egos and great passions. Presidents make political mistakes. Presidents don’t always choose the best persons to advise them, or to act for them, But successful presidents get it right more often than not.
There is no perfect candidate for president in any campaign year, and 2012 is no different. None of the contenders likely to run in 2012 is without warts and shortcomings, But there is at least one, and probably two or three who do have what it takes, and hopefully, one of them will be chosen.
Insofar as the 2012 presidential campaign becomes fixated on extraneous qualities and extraneous issues, the outcome becomes more and more problematic, and the success in the next stage of our national life more in peril.