Beyond the ‘Who’s Qualified?’ Debate: What Qualities Are Key to Being a Good President?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders during a Democratic debate in Brooklyn on April 14.


Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.

Beyond the rather unproductive exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders about who’s qualified to be president, there’s a good topic: what qualities are essential in a president.

A great resume or education is not necessarily predictive. James Buchanan had one of the best resumes in the presidential business and turned out to be one of the worst presidents. Harry Truman was the only U.S. president without a college degree and proved much more consequential.

Of the many qualities necessary to do the job, I’d identify a few as critical to performance:

* A positive and aspirational vision. No president gets elected or governs well by telling the country that its challenges can’t be addressed. But his or her vision has to be rooted in reality. That involves reading the times and the nation’s mood. Lincoln knew that emancipation and abolishing slavery would require a gradual approach. FDR knew that the country needed to address the Depression with the sorts of actions his predecessor failed to take. On the other hand, Barack Obama may have wanted to be a post-partisan president but misread a highly partisan period.

When it comes to messaging in 2016, Donald Trump has a positive slogan in “Make America great again,” but even that can’t mask the negative messaging both implicit and explicit in his campaign. Hillary Clinton has an upbeat, can-do message of what she would accomplish, but she has difficulty inspiring some voters. Bernie Sanders’s call for a political revolution has inspired support across the country but the challenges to enacting his proposals make it unlikely to motivate a majority of Americans. The candidate who has fared poorest in the primaries so far, John Kasich, has a strongly humanizing and positive message, but his party seems more interested in outsiders who want to take down the system, not work within it.

* Temperament. Presidents need to keep their own worst instincts and demons under control and to be self-aware. They can’t allow narcissism, arrogance, insecurities, and petty impulses to govern their behavior. They need to read other people well and collaborate with advisers and Congress. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson were consequential presidents, but their egos and insecurities led them astray.

* Executive experience. Presidents need to be able to make decisions and comfortably wield a substantial amount of power. Experience making decisions in government and knowing how to get things done are critical. A large part of this means choosing the right people to help. Washington and Lincoln had immensely talented teams assisting them. Ronald Reagan benefited greatly from the advice of James Baker as his chief of staff and George Shultz as secretary of state.

* Grounded rhetoric. Presidents talk now more than ever, and the media are covering not only formal statements but also more off-the-cuff remarks. Part of a president’s role is to teach and to persuade, but that doesn’t mean a president’s words lead directly to change. Presidential rhetoric doesn’t pass bills; that’s done by votes and party dominance and, sometimes, smart coalition building. Nor do words win wars. Rhetoric can inspire, but presidential successes often come from intuiting when circumstances are ripe for change and using power and reputation to get things done. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were great communicators but even they fell short with persuasion. Support for many issues Mr. Reagan opposed, including regulatory programs and environmental protection, rose during his presidency. Mr. Clinton saw his health-care proposal fail and watched Republicans take control of the House for the first time in decades.

Meaning what they say helps to narrow the gap between words and deeds. Barack Obama’s unenforced “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and calls for Bashar Assad’s exit have become enduring symbols of the president’s lack of resolve.

Some of our most successful presidents were catapulted to the pantheon of greatness by events over which they had no control: Lincoln and FDR followed failed presidents and were forced to respond to crisis. Dwight Eisenhower’s reputation is rising now partly because he avoided involvement in wars in Southeast Asia that his successors didn’t. Part of Mr. Reagan’s aura stems from entering the White House  after a decade and a half of a credibility crisis in the presidency.

Lincoln famously wrote that events controlled him–a caution the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, might keep in mind.


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