What kind of leader would McCain or Obama be?

A media-based 'job interview' is key to finding out.

For the past 18 months, the country has enjoyed one of the most exciting presidential races in history, and naturally enough we have been asking: Who will win? But with troubles deepening here and abroad, the question increasingly becomes: Can the winner govern effectively?

In most recent elections, voters have gone to the polls with only a hazy idea of whether the man they are voting for will be an effective leader once in office. As Joe Klein argues in his recent book, "Politics Lost," the coming of television and the reliance upon primaries as a means of selecting a nominee have led journalists to focus more and more on the horse race: who is up, who is down, and who has raised the most money. Lost to sight has been "a sober assessment of character and leadership ability."

Sometimes we have gambled and won: Whatever you thought of his politics and his career as an actor, Ronald Reagan turned out to be a highly effective leader. But too often we have gambled and been unhappy: George W. Bush had that "Marlboro Man" look of a good president – and he had all the right pedigrees – but less than a third of the population is now happy with the results.

This year we cannot afford to keep gambling. No president in modern times has faced a more daunting agenda than awaits the man who wins in November; arguably, we have to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt in March 1933 to find a parallel.

From Day One, the incoming president will face ongoing dangers to the American economy: the credit crisis, an implosion in housing, and rising prices for fuel and food. Whatever glittering promises are made on the campaign trail, the fact is that the new president won't have any money to pay for them – not with federal deficits heading skyward. In Year two, the Bush tax cuts will expire. That means President Obama or McCain and Congress must agree on a new tax regime – always a donnybrook.

In Year three, the first wave of baby boomers will hit 65, demanding an overhaul of Social Security and Medicare, which face huge financial shortfalls. In Year four, the Kyoto agreement on climate change expires. Most nations ratified the protocol but the US never did. Its end underscores the need for a comprehensive plan to secure our energy supplies while also reducing our huge carbon emissions. And this is just the beginning here at home. The challenges overseas appear even more immense and complex.

Fascinating as it now is to follow the horse race between Barack Obama and John McCain, we now need something deeper from both of them: a better understanding their priorities and values, their visions and strategies for realizing them, their approaches to building teams and coalitions, and a more concrete sense of how they will govern. What do they hope to accomplish in their first 100 days? Their first term? And what, please, will their budget look like?

A major step forward, we have concluded from a recent conference at Harvard's Kennedy School, would be a media-based "job interview" of each of the candidates – one focused squarely on leadership. That would help voters move beyond identifying where Senators McCain and Obama stand to a better understanding of who they are and how well they would lead.

In 1960, many voters worried that John F. Kennedy was too young and inexperienced to be an effective leader. It turned out that inexperience did prompt a raft of mistakes early on, but he learned quickly and was magnificent when a crisis came over Soviet missiles in Cuba. Sixteen years later, many voters swooned over Jimmy Carter, but he turned out to be better suited for sainthood than for political leadership. Which model better fits Obama? Do we know? Shouldn't we know?

The candidates should themselves recognize their responsibility to provide voters an in-depth view of how they conceive of leadership, how they have led in the past, and how they intend to lead in the Oval Office. But nothing would contribute as much as a thoughtful, sustained "job interview," conducted by respected members of the news media.

What leadership questions would ideally be answered by a presidential nominee? To help answer that, in mid-May we convened a diverse group of some 200 business, nonprofit and government leaders, leadership experts, and students. Starting from "wish lists" of questions from former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, ex-Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode, Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer, social entrepreneur Cheryl Dorsey, and YouTube executive Steve Grove, we ended up with a set of 15 questions that, if thoughtfully answered by the nominees, would help introduce them more fully as leaders to the American voters.

We've posted these questions, and a short video, at And we invite Americans to post their own leadership questions, and encourage all – candidates, citizens, press – to place a more determined focus on the leadership capacity of our next president. We don't see FDRs come along very often, but we may need one now.

David Gergen and Andy Zelleke are director and codirector, respectively, of the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.