The usual proposed remedy for the sorry state of our presidential campaigns is more focus on the issues. That’s important to learn what a candidate believes, to see if he can set priorities, and to judge whether he has the candor to say it out loud. But it’s not enough for a president merely to have a position. He has to have the skill necessary to follow through on his promises and translate his position into policy.
Another idea for improving campaigns is to focus more on the character of candidates, which may get us closer to understanding how they would operate in the Oval Office. That’s also a promising notion, but the way we end up judging candidates’ characters is pretty silly — by looking for press conference gaffes, dissecting the meals they ate when they were young married couples, or assessing the way they play basketball.
So here’s a thought: What if we approached presidential campaigns the way a large corporation approaches its search for a new chief executive? The purpose of the campaign would be to test for the skills and attributes actually required for the job. Companies such as McDonald’s and Target do this even at the junior levels. Applicants are asked questions like “Tell us about a conflict at work you helped resolve” and “What’s the biggest obstacle you overcame?” The qualities employers are seeking are the same ones voters should be looking for in presidential candidates: initiative, experience, creativity and problem solving.
Alas, when candidates are asked questions that might shed some light on these abilities, they run or dodge. They’re trained not to answer hypothetical questions and to tell only heroic tales about their past.
Well, nuts. That doesn’t mean we can’t try to ask these questions anyway. It’s hard to say which attributes are most necessary for a president, if for no other reason than we don’t know what he will face. It’s also hard to put your finger on how to measure certain qualities that will be revealed only under the pressure of a presidency. There is no training for the Oval Office. Still, we’ve got to do something with all of these television hours, rallies and conversations with the neighbors, so consider four qualities to guide the way we evaluate candidates for the job:
Political skill: Campaigns give us a good idea of a candidate’s priorities, but can they read the political landscape they’ll face when they get to office? Are they honest enough to win voters’ trust but ruthless enough cut a deal with their enemies when necessary? Are they comfortable with the schmoozing, backslapping and ego-massaging that comes with the job?
Management ability: Is the candidate focused enough to follow an overarching vision, but nimble enough to tweak that vision when real-world events intervene? Can they admit mistakes and learn from them? Can they sift through complex ideas? Can they recognize baloney when it comes from their staff or supporters? Do they know how to hire a good team?
Persuasiveness: Do they know how to deliver a good speech? Do they know when to stay quiet? Do they know how to read public opinion? Is it possible for a president to shortcircuit Congress by taking an issue directly to the people?
Temperament: Has the candidate ever faced a true crisis? Do they have the equanimity to handle the erratic and unpredictable pressures of the office? How are they with uncertainty?