HAS a presidential candidate ever cheated on his wife? Does he have a track record showing he can manage the government effectively?
The first question draws all the media and voter attention. The second will be a key factor determining an effective presidency. As I argued in "Mismanaging America": "Inept presidential governance is the critical barrier blocking the effective pursuit of sound policies.... Organizational mastery has been the pivotal missing ingredient in the presidencies since Eisenhower."
Mismanagement is the clearest common characteristic of elected presidents over the last three decades. In looking at the various presidential candidates, four skills loom large if a president is to run the government effectively.
First is political mastery, the ability to mobilize support for the president's policies. Without political mastery, no matter how well a president measures up on other dimensions, he is not going to have a successful presidency.
Second, a president must be able to develop realistic long-range objectives for the country. How can a president lead if he does not tell the public where he wants to take them?
Third, an effective president must have a probing mind capable of analyzing policy ideas. No matter how much staff help the president has, his own critical thinking is essential to his policymaking. A president should demand a wide range of advice and be capable of assessing it.
Fourth is organizational mastery, the ability to understand how complex federal policies work. Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein praises "Eisenhower's capacity to think organizationally - to conceive policy problems in terms of the formal and informal group processes through which they can be clarified and implemented."
A president must be far more than a technocrat. But just being a politician isn't enough, either. Brookings Institution scholar Bert Rockman wrote wisely, "A president whose only skill is policy analysis is not apt to be president for long.... On the other hand, statecraft without policy analysis is government by sheer instinct."
The president is the nation's chief executive. He is both the premier political leader and the government's top manager, but the latter job description often gets lost when the media and voters consider presidential candidates. Even the best newspapers that do in-depth pieces on major presidential candidates fail to treat adequately their ability, or lack of it, to manage the federal government.
Over and over again, the media probe presidential candidates on their styles - how they present themselves, whether they can capture a crowd, whether the candidates are cool in debate. The newspaper articles often are more appropriate for picking a prime-time news personality than a president.
That a president ought to be able to think in political, strategic (big picture), analytic, and organizational terms seems straightforward. But how are voters to determine these qualities? Does a background of governor of a large state, or senator, or both indicate a presidential candidate is likely to have the four needed skills? Unfortunately, no. Even a good track record in the past does not ensure that the bigger job of president will not overwhelm the person.
Voters must demand that the media people who follow the presidential candidates do their homework to assess their ability to manage the government.
For example, what experience has the candidate had in managing a government or large-scale organization, and how well did he perform? In the past, has the candidate had a strong professional staff with sound policy and organizational experience? Has the candidate sought out a wide range of policy ideas and been capable of analyzing them?
Moreover, the job needs to be done now, during the primary season. Once the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees are chosen, it is too late. Few voters will choose the Republican candidate over the Democrat, or vice versa, because one is the better manager. That dimension, however, may be a key one when considering candidates from the same political party.
The terribly flawed record of elected presidents over the last 30 years came about in part because one (Ronald Reagan) did not think at all, two (George Bush, Jimmy Carter) did not think about the big picture, and none thought organizationally. The nation's good health depends on whether a thinking president can be found.