In 457 days, a year and three months, Americans will elect their 45th president. Before the balloons drop in someone’s hotel ballroom, dozens of debates, hundreds of ideas, thousands of speeches with millions of words, and billions of dollars will be deployed in the 2016 campaign.
Thursday night in Cleveland, the first salvos of that race were fired when 17 Republican candidates, split into two brackets like a flighted golf tournament, began peppering each other with sound bites in televised debates. Five Democrats wait in the wings for their own jousts ahead.
American voters to this point, other than enjoying the show, mostly shrug and wait for the calendar to roll the election closer before they dial in completely.
It’s way early, even if election cycles, like basketball offseasons, get more condensed over time. With actual votes still months away, candidates are scrambling mostly for money and attention. Those who get it will reach the next round. Those who don’t will troll for talk shows or Cabinet jobs.
So before the process of vetting candidates begins in earnest, it’s a good time to ponder what we really want in a president.
Remember, we’re the bosses here and the 22 running are applying for the job. As any good personnel manager knows, before making a hire you need a job description listing the specific abilities you seek. So if we were to design the ideal president based on agreed-upon standards, what would that job posting look like?
Let’s start with what the Constitution says. Article II describes the president as head of the executive branch with a few specific powers: Sign or veto laws offered by Congress; recommend and appoint, with congressional approval, judges, justices, ambassadors and other officers; sign pardons and propose treaties; offer an annual state of the union message; and serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.
That’s about it. There’s nothing in there about “managing the economy,” guiding domestic or foreign policy, and certainly nothing about acting on social policy. What began as an executive with limited powers morphed over time into a semi-omnipotent manager, minister, emperor and legislator in chief.
No wonder candidates often fail to meet expectations. Since the Great Depression, the job has grown too huge for mere mortals to shoulder the crushing burden of a 24/7 vortex of decisions, crises and political wrangling. But squeezing it back into its constitutional box isn’t realistic, so we have to accept the evolution.
One desired trait is that a president must be likable, even lovable, and command the “bully pulpit” by earning Americans’ attention and adulation. Nice speeches have their place; presidents have inspired and healed in times of duress. Still, oratorical skills are a small piece of the puzzle. Putting a talented actor on stage only works if the script tells the right tale.
Another popular persona is the anti-Washington, “anti-politician” politician. That’s why, among the many governors and senators now running, are a neurosurgeon and two business pros. Regardless of background, they all prefer to identify with regular folks rather than the capital’s limousine class.
But is it ideal to have a non-politician in the ultimate political job? Or do we need a really good politician instead? Note that the most popular and effective presidents were skilled in the art of the deal. The four on Mount Rushmore — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — were masters of their times, as were Franklin D. Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as the top political craftsmen of the 20th century.
Could any of them win now? One would think so. So perhaps we need a president who doesn’t just disdain Washington from afar but knows how to control it and make it work once he or she gets there.
What experience matters most? Many in the race are legislators who have not held executive office, requiring a different set of decision-making skills. Thus, is a governor more qualified than a senator? We’ve seen successes and failures from both.
There’s also value in having real-world experience. Those from the private sector who have hired and fired, balanced budgets and dealt with economic policy from the other side provide a valuable perspective. A lifetime spent in government can insulate one in a bubble sheltered from everyday issues.
So to create the ideal candidate, we might seek this mix: Part of a life spent in business or a real profession, yet with knowledge of government’s inner workings at both the legislative and executive levels, and the ability to persuade and twist arms effectively to reach goals.
Add to that cocktail shaker a strong speaker with an affable personality; a steel spine dealing with foreign leaders; a commander in chief who can wield military might effectively; and a fiscal hawk who can balance a budget with a sharp scalpel while still creating a society that cares for those in need.
Piece of cake — if we put in a call to Krypton. But if Superman takes a pass, all we can do is prioritize those skills and select the candidate whose resume and rhetoric come closest to that model.
Fortunately there’s plenty of time to judge the men and women seeking the job. Starting from the end, though, is a good way to ensure we elect someone best able to fill the hot seat in the Oval Office without being consumed by the task.