Overlooked Qualities You Should Look for In a President
Yes, the policies matter and personality is more important than you admit, but here are some underrated traits that matter for a Commander in Chief.
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Whether you are ready for it or not, the 2024 Presidential election season is upon us. Men and women crazy enough to look in the mirror and see the next leader of the free world suddenly find themselves shaking hands, gathering in diners, and engaging in town halls across Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, there will not be much of a debate, despite Robert Kennedy, Jr’s bid to extend Camelot another generation. For Republicans, however, there is a veritable casting call of candidates.
Picking a president, especially in the primary, comes down to a variety of factors. Top of mind for most voters this year are policy positions, such as abortion, immigration, and parental choice in education. Others are concerned about foreign policy or economic issues such as trade and inflation. It’s appropriate to prioritize these matters in picking presidents, given that the nation’s chief executive will make thousands of appointments in the various branches of government that will shape the country’s public during his or her tenure.
Still, while sorting through the choices, especially when choosing between candidates with very little difference in ideology, there are other, less discussed qualities of presidents you may not want to overlook when caucusing or voting next spring. Here are a few.
There is the agenda a presidential candidate thinks he will be able to enact in office and there is the reality that will face the chief executive once he sits in the Oval Office. History shows that crises arrive that few if any can see on the horizon that will depend on the President’s leadership. Consider the last few decades in American history. President George W. Bush campaigned as an education president in 2000, but events like 9/11, the DC sniper attack, Katrina, and the financial meltdown were significant, agenda-changing events during his tenure. President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq and bringing America together but was forced to deal with major oil spills, The Boston Bombing, the Sandy Hook and Mother Emmanuel shootings, and the rise of ISIS. Bill Clinton faced the Oklahoma City bombing and Columbine and the war in Bosnia. Donald Trump had to deal with a worldwide pandemic, the Parkland shoting and George Floyd.
You could study almost every American President, from Washington until the present, and find significant unforeseen events that shaped their legacies, for good or for ill. So when we choose a President, we are asking that person to shepherd the nation through the difficulties yet ahead. This is why, especially in a primary when there are so many choices between people who mostly agree on policy, it is wise to probe beyond the soundbites and partisan jibes. When was the last time the candidates faced a significant crisis? Did they react with calm determination and clear thinking or do they shrink back in fear? When that leader is in the situation room, surrounded by experts with differing opinions, and a monumental decision is left to him and him alone, is there a deep reservoir of character from which to draw in order to make a tough call?
An underrated quality of presidential leadership is the ability of a President to summon the appropriate words and temperament when a nation is in mourning. When the space shuttle Challenger crashed, taking the lives of seven crew members, including teacher Christy McAuliffe, I was eight years old. Yet I distinctly remember the words of President Reagan, who comforted the nation, by saying, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, FDR stood in the House chamber and with emotion and determination, declared it a “day that will live in infamy” and throughout the ensuring war, skillfully guided the nation via the new medium of radio. Gerald Ford, after the horror of Watergate, helped America breathe a sigh of relief that “the long national nightmare” was over. LBJ somberly commemorated the tragic death of President Kennedy, “No words are sad enough to express our sense of loss. No words are strong enough to express our determination to continue the forward thrust of America that he began.” Who can forget George W. Bush, standing in a pile of rubble and letting those mourning the fallen know “We hear you” or President Obama’s stirring rendition of Amazing Grace after the horror of Mother Emmanuel?
In the modern era, Americans often want to see their President mourning alongside them in a moment of crisis. When a hurricane strikes, we want to see the Comforter-in-Chief, sleeves rolled up, empathizing with victims. When the nation is attacked, we need to see the Commander-in-Chief, with steely resolve but warm compassion for those who lost their lives. These are the moments when we are no longer Republicans or Democrats, but Americans.
All across Iowa and New Hampshire and on the airwaves and social media timelines, presidential candidates are outlining their respective platforms. They are making big, bold promises about what they’ll do once the oath of office is administered on that cold day in January. Yet, the next president will face a harsh reality: even those who win by significant margins have a short window to accomplish their agenda. Very rarely does a President’s party control both houses of Congress. According to Pew Research, “Although a single party in charge in Washington is common at the beginning of a new president’s term, there has only been one presidency since 1969 where control has lasted beyond the following midterm election.”
This can be especially jarring for leaders who come from offices where they commanded supermajorities bent on delivering a favorable agenda. Even when a President has the majority in the House and Senate, he still cannot always count on all the votes in his own caucus. So a good question to ask candidates is this: how do you plan to get your agenda passed? How good are you at negotiating? Are you willing to compromise to get something done? Are you willing to invest time and energy in key relationships in order to move your priorities across the finish line? Will you take 50 or 60% of something rather than 100% of nothing? Of course, we are far removed from the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil would spend their nights fraternizing and hammering out deals. The parties are far more polarized, the interest groups far more entrenched, and the incentives to pass legislation pale in comparison to the incentive to use Congress to build a media platform. Still, it’s not impossible. President Trump passed a bipartisan reform to the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Biden passed a bipartisan transportation bill.
The reality is that the next President, regardless of who wins, will face significant opposition in Congress, represented by half of the country who voted differently.
Candidates for President run for office by first channeling the grievances of their respective constituencies. This is natural and normal, especially in a primary where voters want to see how you will fight for their issues and policies. The people who show up to rallies and town halls and dimly-lit diners want to see that you are one of them. And yet, candidates should also find opportunities, amidst the clamor of partisan mudslinging, to point their voters toward hope in America’s future.
This is especially important when the President assumes office. It’s good and right to point out America’s many deficits and problems, areas of decline, and pockets of injustice. Still, a President should also not hesitate to wax eloquent about what is good about America. Today we suffer from a decline in gratitude. In both parties, cynicism reigns, as politicians race to describe America in the most dystopian terms. We need leaders who avoid dismissing serious issues but who also are able to help America believe in itself again.
A president also represents America on the world stage, meeting with foreign leaders around the globe. In these settings, while maintaining appropriate sobriety, the President should not hesitate to brag about the country. A President should work hard not to embarrass America or be embarrassed by America abroad.
This criteria is not exhaustive, of course, nor are these overlooked traits the sole reason to cast a vote, but they do matter. When choosing a President, prioritize policy, but don’t be afraid to probe a little deeper.
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