It’s hard to say what the Founding Fathers would think of the modern presidency. But there’s no doubt they’d be horrified by the modern presidential campaign. In their day, no man worthy of the presidency would ever stoop to campaigning for it. George Washington was asked to serve. Decades later his successors were also expected to sit by the phone. “The Presidency is not an office to be either solicited or declined,” wrote Rep. William Lowndes of South Carolina in 1821. Rutherford B. Hayes wanted to be so free of the taint of self-interest he didn’t even vote for himself in the election of 1876. As late as 1916, President Woodrow Wilson called campaigning “a great interruption to the rational consideration of public questions.”
Not so today. Mitt Romney has been running for president for six years. Barack Obama has arguably never stopped since he took the oath of office. Today campaigning isn’t an “interruption” but a permanent condition. Indeed, if you are a successful campaigner it’s expected you’ll be a successful president. In 1992, after Bill Clinton beat George Bush, Dan Quayle said, “If he governs as well as he campaigned, the country will be all right.” Republicans had argued Clinton’s character faults disqualified him from office. Quayle was articulating the common modern view — ratified by voters — that being a gifted campaigner was the more important quality. When Barack Obama was asked about his lack of executive experience in 2008, he pointed to his successful campaign as proof he could manage the presidency. Bill Clinton testified on his behalf: “If you have any doubt about Senator Obama’s ability to be the chief executive,” Clinton said at one of Obama’s vast rallies in October 2008, “just look at all of you. . . . He has executed this campaign.”
There are similarities between the campaign and the presidency. Both tasks require a candidate to perform well under pressure, communicate effectively and build a team that trusts you and can function with little sleep and lots of stress. Obama political adviser David Axelrod says the crucible of the campaign uncovers the hidden personal qualities that you can’t list on a résumé. “It’s an MRI for the soul,” he says.
But if good campaigners made good presidents, we’d have a constant string of successes. Most sitting presidents, almost by definition, have been skilled on the campaign trail. Yet the talents do not necessarily convey. Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964 in part because of his attention to the minutiae of the contest. He carried a laminated card in his pocket of the key polls in each battleground state, but Vietnam was beyond his ability to micromanage. Nixon and his men brought modern public relations techniques to the presidency in 1968. As president, he trampled on the office. In 1974, Jimmy Carter was such a political unknown that no one on the game show What’s My Line recognized him. Two years later he was president. Wise men considered Carter’s meteoric rise proof that he was a political genius. Maybe he was. But he was also one of our least effective presidents.
Campaigns reward fighters. Governing requires cooperation, compromise and negotiation. Campaigns focus on one opponent, but a president, even if he wants to go on the attack, never has just one jaw to swing at. President Obama must attack the Republican Congress — John Boehner one day, Paul Ryan the next. It was easier to slug John McCain again and again.