October 21, 2016

Reboot: What Should It Take to Become President?

In a little over two weeks America will be choosing a new president, along with senators, representatives, and other government officials.  I think I can say, without contradiction, this has been the most unusual, outrageous, tense election cycle we have experienced. The differences between the two top candidates couldn't be starker.

Ten months ago I wrote the following post on what it should take to be president. What are the skills, basic approaches to governance, temperament, and experiences that the next leader of this country should possess?

I am rerunning that post again to see if what was said almost a year ago should be modified or changed in any way. Just like the last time, please don't turn this into a rant about either of the candidates running for president. I would hope that this list, along with your comments, can be re-run before the 2020 cycle to help us think through whatever those choices will be.

After a post late last year, Are We Really So Afraid?, a reader asked me to develop a job description for the office of president. The silliness of the debates, the sound-bite approach to picking a leader for our country and the difficulty in finding information that hasn't been pushed through a particular political or social filter made this a fascinating request.

After all, someone who applies for a position of leadership in a large company must be able to prove why he or she has the experience and temperament to get the job done. For a position with as many direct consequences on our daily life, shouldn't there be as careful an examination for president?

If we look at the last several decades, the answer would seem to be, No. Our Chief Executive is picked on emotional reactions or ideological feelings, the ability to raise huge sums of money, and having powerful friends both inside and outside government. Experience in managing people, effective decision-making, the ability to compromise for the good of all, and a moral center that prohibits losing sight of who and what we are as a company (or country), are great for the CEO of Intel or Google but don't seem to be part of how we choose a president.

So, in all humility, I offer the following as a basic job description for the office holder of the U.S. Presidency. This list is not all inclusive, but maybe a good start for discussion:

1) Understand that the president is the leader of all 320 million of us. The politics that gets someone elected cannot prevent that person from governing in a way that benefits us all. Purely partisan decisions must be left behind when entering the White House. 

2) Understand that democratic governance often requires compromise. That is how our system is designed to function. Unless we are willing to adopt an autocratic form of government, there must be the ability and temperament to compromise. Sometimes unpopular, hard decisions are required. At other times, they are counterproductive.

3) Understand the United States is part of a world economy and collection of 195 countries. Many have no interest in being like us. Some actively dislike us. Some are our friends when it suits their interests, or ours. Maybe it worked in the past, but today we can no longer tell others what to do and expect them to toe the line. To protect our interests you may have to act in a way that makes others angry. At the same time, cooperation and recognizing the rights of others to make their own choices are essential skills. Trade pacts are developed to protect each participant, but sometimes that is not the end result. Be open to change if needed, stability when required.

4) Understand that over the long haul building bridges works better than building walls, though sometimes the person with the biggest wall wins.

5) Understand how our system of government functions. Being an "outsider" is an attractive trait when some are angry at a dysfunctional establishment. Not having a strong knowledge of the rules of the game and how things are accomplished will lead to gridlock and a frozen system, or being taken advantage of in a way that puts all of us at risk.

6) Understand the geopolitical world situation. The mix of religions, ethnic groupings, history, changing alliances, and an inner-connected world is a complex system that does not respond to simple solutions.

7) Understand the history of the United States. How and why we were founded, the mistakes and accomplishments in our past, and the moral character our citizens believe in must guide decisions and leadership choices.

8) Understand that during your term you will face unending criticism from constantly shifting portions of the citizenry. You will have to make tough decisions that might be politically wrong, but ethically right. You will do things that some people hate, and some may love. You cannot take it personally. You are trying to lead a society that has become fragmented and ethnically diverse. You will never please everyone. Also, understand that in 4 or 8 years you will be out of a job. You are going to be replaced, so stay humble.

What did I overlook?


  1. Maybe this post should be part of the oath of office! But I do think a president needs to have the ability not just to compromise and govern in a way that benefits us all, but also to motivate and inspire OTHERS to look beyond their own self-interest and agree to compromise and vote for policies and procedures that benefit us all.

    1. Excellent..that should become point 9. In today's hyperpartisan environment it is probably the hardest goal to achieve.

    2. I agree completely, Tom. And being able to look beyond self-interests and agree to compromise pretty much gets us down to one candidate at the moment. I'm beginning to breath a bit easier this week.

    3. Normally I would feel a sense of relief, being this close to this circus being resolved. But, I have little confidence that there will be still waters on Nov. 9th.

  2. While I believe the vast majority of Americans would agree with these points, the most important people in the overall equation, namely the politicians themselves, do not. Money rules everything, from how they are elected in the first place, to who they are beholding to. I do not believe this is a recent phenomenon in this country, but has been the way it is since the formation of our Federation.

    This year may have been one of the starkest to reveal that truism. You have a candidate on the one hand who is part of a career couple, who obviously are beholding to their special interests and benefactors. You have a complete outsider on the opposite side who while having special interests as well, is a perceived direct threat to the status quo. Just like the proverbial nail sticking up that has to be symbolically nailed down, the establishment can not condone anyone who does not emphatically support the status quo. Maybe that person would have ultimately been the same as the career politicians, but the establishment cannot take that chance.

    We will ultimately go the way of prior economic empires like the Roman, Spanish, and British, and continually diminish on the world stage. Our self-serving politicians will insure that outcome, since it is too late to stop the slide.

    1. Not the most optimistic reaction, but there is lots of truth in what you say, Chuck. Actually, many of these points should apply to members of Congress, a lot of whom would fail the same measurements.

    2. With all due rezpect to ChuckY, 'the estabhlisment' had nothing whatsoever to do with my voting decision. It was very easy to glean a sense of each candidate by every word uttered over the couse of the long campaign, much of which was captured on video. This year's campaign was ugly beyond belief, and I am beyond relieved that is almost over, but I feel very good about my final voting decisions. Tuning out the noise and focusing on what I perceived to be the most critical issues made it clear where I would be casting my votes.

  3. The day after the debates, Rachel Maddow featured a clip of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking in 2012, after his retirement. He said the biggest threat to our way of governing was to have a populace uneducated in civics and the checks and balances of our government. If a dislocation or disaster occurred that left a large part of the populace struggling, they would not know whom to blame if they did not understand how our government works. They would be susceptible to someone powerful coming in and saying, "Just give me all the power, and I can take care of these problems." Souter said he feared that scenario more than than a foreign state invading or a military coup, and now his words seem chillingly prophetic. As Maddow pointed out, we have a candidate who believes he can have his opponent tried and arrested; change the admiral and generals in the armed forces, presumably to those who favor his way of doing things; shut down or exclude access for those media sources that do not paint a favorable portrait of him, and not accept the outcome of elections.

    1. An authoritarian leader cannot coexist with democracy, unless the populous allows it. Look at the Philippines, where their new president has received the support of the people for killing anyone connected with the drug trade, without benefit of trial or even any form of proof.

      I am not suggesting that is where we are, but a certain portion of our citizens seem to be looking for someone to make it all better again. Unfortunately, that is a dangerous fantasy. Reality has a funny way of winning over wishes.

  4. We tend to make the whole thing too personal. Perhaps the best attribute of a successful president is the ability to identify and select advisers who have integrity and wisdom, and to listen to them and carefully weigh their suggestions.