The Next President

The 2008 Presidential campaign is already in full gear. The debates have begun, and it won’t be long before we’re inundated with political commercials.  


It’s impossible to predict, at this stage, who the eventual nominees will be. For one thing, what people want in a president tends to be highly idiosyncratic. (My grandmother voted for John F. Kennedy because she loved his hair.)


Most of us want someone who agrees with us on the issues, but we also want someone we can trust to exercise good judgment when the unexpected occurs. Most want someone who is a strong leader, although we tend to disagree about what “strength” looks like. Until recently, most Americans wanted a President with “likability,” someone you’d like to have a beer with—but polls suggest that the experiences of the past six years have diminished the appeal of “regular guys” somewhat.


That experience has also shaped my own list of what I want in the next President.


I want someone who understands the context of Presidential action. Without understanding the foundations of America’s constitutional culture, an administration simply cannot operate effectively—whatever its goals. Lack of familiarity with  geopolitical realities threatens not just American, but global, security. Genuinely understanding the context in which he operates requires a President with an open mind, a curious nature, and high intelligence.


I also want someone who has “the vision thing.” As Theodore Hesburgh once said “You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” But vision is not stubborness. America needs leaders who know the difference.


I want someone with superior communication skills—the ability to bring a divided people together, the ability to inspire hope rather than fear, and the ability to listen as well as talk.


Perhaps most of all, I am looking for authenticity. Authenticity is the extent to which people are true to their real selves, the extent to which they refuse to play a role in order to achieve political success. Authenticity doesn’t mean acting without any strategic calculus—sane people respond appropriately to their environments, and to the incentives and disincentives built in to those environments. But for authentic people, there is a line that doesn’t get crossed.


Authentic people are emotionally mature, they have the ability to laugh at themselves, they listen to dissenting voices without becoming defensive, and they can distinguish between policy disputes and personal attacks. They learn from their mistakes, and they recognize the limits of their own knowledge. Emotional maturity is not an absence of ego—we’d never get national leadership if that were a condition of candidacy! It is instead the possession of a particular kind of ego, a particular kind of inner security that allows recognition of one’s own limits.


I want someone who understands accountability. There’s a world of difference between Truman’s “The buck stops here” and Bush’s “I’m the decider.”  The first says “I accept responsibility.” The second says “I’m the boss.”


As Abraham Lincoln said “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”