AN American president has more influence as the nation's most prominent agenda setter and newsmaker than anyone else. Even apart from a president's influence as prime budgetmaker and legislative leader, an effective president can shape debates about educational excellence or commitment to civil rights, basic research breakthroughs, space exploration, or energy independence. Merely by making visits to promising research institutions or honoring certain professional and civic leaders, a president can heighten national appreciation and support for desirable national priorities.
The 1988 presidential election, now in full stride, should be an important occasion for asking not only presidential candidates but also ourselves: What are the breakthroughs and inventions we want to encourage in this next generation? What improvements in education and investments in basic research are needed to make ours a competitive trading nation? What steps will create jobs and permit us to retain a leadership role in the world economy? What needs to be done to guarantee every American equal access to a first-rate education, an equal opportunity to a rewarding job, and to permit everyone to develop their talents as far as humanly possible? How are we going to finance what needs to be done while at the same time move to slash the national debt, encourage personal saving, and abide by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit elimination schedule?
We need candidates and a nation of citizen-leaders willing to affirm that the best defense systems of this nation will be meaningless if the United States does not have a healthy economy. The best way to achieve a healthy economy is to do what America does best: to be the world's best source of new inventions, research breakthroughs, and pioneering agricultural, medical, space, and communications technologies. The vitality and security of this country depend on the vitality of its educational systems and its commitment to basic research and development. Toward this end, we need national leaders committed not to cutbacks, but to expanded investment in student assistance and loans to ensure that the best future talent obtains the best education possible. We need leaders who are willing to invent novel new joint-venture partnerships in encouraging breakthroughs in medical, communications, computer, and superconductivity research.
How would the candidate provide the leadership needed to encourage these? How also can early-childhood nutrition and day-care programs and anti-literacy efforts be made part of an overall program of high-quality education and enhanced industrial productivity?
Other important general questions:
What is each presidential candidate's reading of the US Constitution? Does the candidate have a generous or narrow interpretation of the Bill of Rights? Does he recognize that Congress has at least an equal role in the making of foreign policy? How will he prevent the violation of laws and disrespect of our separation-of-powers principles illustrated in the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals?
What is the candidate's grasp of economics? Who are his favorite economic theorists and why? What are his plans for providing for a common defense that will ensure the nation's security yet also eliminate waste? What of plans to encourage free and fair trade and healthy economic growth and to reduce the annual deficits? How will he work with leaders of labor and business to encourage innovation and productivity in America's private-sector economic institutions?
Is each candidate an experienced and effective politician, with the even temperament necessary for the job? Does he enjoy politics and all the pulling and tugging that goes with it? Does he enjoy the alliance and coalition-building that are the essence of practical politics? Is he an able negotiator? Is he an effective communicator and bargainer, able to reconcile different interests and to forge the bipartisan compromises that are often necessary to move the nation forward?
How will each candidate use the office to clarify options, to educate, explain, and teach about constitutional principles and hard public-policy choices that need to be made? How will he fashion a presidency to be a source of information rather than disinformation - a center of creative planning rather than public relations posturing? Will he affirm the positive responsibilities of government as a problem solver rather than engage in bureaucrat-bashing and trivialize the responsibilities of government as the cause of social and economic problems?
What will be each candidate's leadership style and theory of presidential leadership? How will he strike the balance between being preoccupied with the leaves and not being able to see even the trees, and the opposite problem of being so disengaged as to doze off in or even avoid Cabinet and National Security Council meetings? How does he propose to keep the National Security Council accountable and the Council of Economic Advisers, or the Office of Management and Budget, from fudging their figures and misrepresenting economic developments? Will he be willing to pledge to hold news or press conferences every few weeks, even when the going gets rough?
Is the candidate an avid consumer of advice and information? Does he have a robust intellectual curiosity about world affairs and economic policies? Does he read widely? Does he fully appreciate that leadership is rarely a solo performance, but rather a process requiring multiple-advocacy and evaluation processes, and that these in turn depend on scores of outstanding Cabinet officers, aides, and both part-time and full-time policy advisers? Does he, and will he, surround himself with independent-minded advisers who are not afraid to be critical. What kinds of people will he appoint, hire as advisers, nominate to the federal courts, listen to and consult with? Equally important, what strategies does he have to counter the temptations of isolation in that office and the other degenerative forces that periodically undermine an administration after a few years in power?
What is each candidate's understanding of the differing visions and aspirations that Americans have for their country? Where does he believe America should be heading? What about its role in the world, human rights, South Africa, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, the Arias peace plan, and how is he going to follow up, and with what initiatives, the recent US-Soviet summit meeting? How does he believe we can have both a strong defense, yet prevent nuclear war and reverse the needless and costly arms race?
What are the candidate's views about the fundamental rights of US citizens - both those expressed in the Constitution as amended, and those like education, tolerance, compassion, privacy, equal rights for women, and economic and political democracy that are unenumerated in or perhaps go beyond the Constitution? How will the candidate's presidency and administration help unlock the altruistic, voluntary, and humanitarian impulses that are abundant in this splendid country?
Does the candidate have the high self-esteem and self-confidence and yet the proper amount of humility and self-doubt needed to lead? Does he have the optimism, idealism, and imagination that are the prerequisites for creative presidential leadership in a large democratic society? Is he a gifted listener?
Is the candidate intellectually honest? Does he display the needed internal discipline in how he conducts his life which suggests the authenticity so indispensable to effective and credible leadership? Is he at ease with people of various political persuasions, and is he at ease with himself? The biggest enemy for many a leader is not his or her partisan or international foes so much as his or her own ego, ambitions, personal illusions, or inability to hear criticism and take a joke. Does he have the necessary drive, yet is not driven? We want and deserve leaders who will regularly place the country and the Constitution ahead of their personal and partisan needs. And, finally, we want presidential leadership that will campaign for great ideals as well as legislative bills and will, at least on appropriate occasions, make the US presidency a center of moral leadership.
Plainly, we expect a lot, perhaps too much, of those who would be our president. And doubtless we expect too little of ourselves. A better balance is needed. It used to be, as Adlai Stevenson said, that every four years we pick a president and for the next four years we pick him apart. Nowadays we appear to pick apart presidential candidates for several years even before the election. Yet we rightly seek out the best in the nation.
We have nearly 75 times the population we had back in 1789, the year of our first election. We can hardly expect leaders who are many times better than the Washingtons, Adamses, and Jeffersons of that day, yet we still aim high, and justifiably so. The office is more important and powerful these days, and its opportunity to set the tone and empower us and our best impulses is hard to overstate.
In our search for the Mt. Rushmore types, however, let us recognize that a more important need is to encourage and nurture a nation of citizen-leaders in all walks of life. If we could better provide for this, we could get along well with good rather than larger-than-life charismatic presidents. And since a good rather than great president is perhaps the best we can expect, we ought also, while we are at it, to thank those who are running for president, be realistic about what they alone can be and do, and ask more of ourselves and societal and professional leaders throughout both governmental and nongovernmental America.
Thomas E. Cronin is McHugh professor of American institutions and leadership at the Colorado College and author of ``The State of the Presidency,'' Little, Brown & Co., 1980.