Every four years, a group of folks declare their candidacy for the top spot, to be the recognized leader of the free world. These folks self declare themselves to be the best, the brightest, and the distinctly qualified to assume the top leadership position in the entire world. All candidates, even incumbents, must go through a wide variety of vetting processes, some formal, some not; in an election process that seems to last two years in duration.
I have had the pleasure to be a part of many interview and recruitment processes in my career, hiring for blue collar, technical, professional and executive level positions. The election of a President is the wildest job interview one could imagine. When I interview job candidates, for whatever the job, there are a number of characteristics and basic attitudes that each candidate must have as a minimum. I look for examples of integrity (strong moral fiber), personal commitment (to public service), ability to work with others (cooperation and serving others), proof they can think at a higher level (above the position they are applying for), affable (reasonable size ego), and examples of past success (applicable to the job). Unless you are the incumbent, then you have no Presidential experience, so can you learn on the job? Even for the position of President: Hire for attitude, train for skill.
The President sets the vision for the country and inspires the setting of goals and ambition for current and future generations. Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan all had the ability to paint a picture of the future and to collectively focus our dreams and aspirations. The President must be a builder, who can take our challenges and fears, and assemble them to span wars, recessions and other problems; fuel our hopes and dreams with the pioneering spirit; and be able to appeal to broad ranges of Americans who are divided by income, race, age and philosophy. It is easy to promise everything and unite people’s fear against a common enemy, but leading finds, and pulls together, differing threads of the American fabric.
Our President is not an emperor or a dictator, although he or she is trusted with a great deal of power, both as head of the executive branch of the federal government, and as someone who can directly impact public opinion and at a moment’s notice, the world’s media. Presidents do not rule; we escaped the monarchy many centuries ago, creating a government of separate but equal powers. Presidents have long tested the power of the executive branch as it has bumped against the will of Congress and the Judicial Branch. An electoral majority elects presidents, not necessarily a majority of voters, and certainly not a majority of citizens eligible to vote. Too many voters do not vote, preferring to defer their voice to others in picking their leaders. Being Presidential is not dissuading entire segments of voters to sit out but facing and constructing a platform that addresses competing interests and leading an entire populous.
We do not look to our President to be perfect yet we expect them to be more than mere mortals in their judgment, honesty, temperament, decision-making skills, and ability to perform under tremendous criticism and pressure. Presidents are given an Oval Office not a bunker. Each President must assemble a talented and experienced team of advisors, Cabinet Secretaries and executives to lead the huge executive branch and to assist in making and carrying out policy. The President moves many people into powerful positions, often because of past loyalty or party affiliation, and less because of their leadership skills and success. Presidents are consumed with people and situations needing their time and attention, that’s why there is so much delegation to others to act in the country’s best interest, or not. I once worked for a mayor who told me that I worked for the office, not for him. Unfortunately, he forgot that as the power of the office went to his head. What he told me was correct, but in clearly partisan environments, staff can experience divided loyalties, but however challenging it might be, your values are your compass in the political wilderness.
Presidential campaigns are expensive and given rise to entire industries of consultants, polling advisors, and communication and political teams. Each election seems to carry the foreboding tagline of being the last chance to preserve our way of life or rescue the vanishing American Dream. The pressure to win is crushing, and while winning at any cost might be a political value, it is not an American value. Often, successful candidates emerge fresh and sweet smelling, untarnished by the grime of politicking, claiming to be far removed from any campaign nastiness or the targeted defamation that occurs in television and print efforts in key voter districts and precincts.
Being Presidential is talking straight to the public, not boasting, trash-talking, playing loose and deceptively with known facts. Being Presidential is rising above the criticism, not ignoring it, but not engaging in a war of words. The public want strength in their leaders, those who will fight for what they believe in, but not brawling street fighters. Richard Nixon was haunted by criticism, empowered creating an enemies list, unleashing vindictive and unlawful actions against the press, political opponents, and the judicial branch and ultimately against the American public. Jimmy Carter seemed offended by criticism and was quick to dismiss it. A very smart man, he gave the impression that he was the smartest man in the room and seemed to want you to know it. Carter has gotten more reflective about his Presidency in recent years and understands some of his missteps. A rarity in polititics.
As you listen to campaign appearances, debates and responses to reporter questions, think about the morality, integrity and civility of the person you want to sit in the Oval Office. Love or hate Bill Clinton, his morality, or lack of it, will forever tarnish his Presidency. George H. W. Bush, was perhaps too moral, a man of deep conviction who was troubled by the growing stench of big stakes Presidential politics (the use of Willie Horton).
If I am interviewing potential candidates I want someone who shows me not only a vision but also a plan. I want to be convinced of someone who is not bluster and ego, someone who is engaging and creates passion, someone who has a range of knowledge about the issues but does not drown in the details, and someone who is even tempered and compassionate. Too much to ask for? Not for the top job, that’s why so few people are even qualified to be considered.