The American people will choose a president this year. They may re-elect William Jefferson Clinton or select a new president. Whatever happens between now and Election Day on Nov. 5, we are going to have many opportunities to think about what we want a president to be — and what we want him to do.
One way to think about what our president should be is to do a little “benchmarking,” i.e., to look at the best presidents and see what qualities of leadership seemed to account for their success. In a lecture last week, historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of Lyndon Johnson, said six key qualities describe most successful presidents. These are:
Vision. Successful presidents have a large vision of where they want to take the country or what we should be as a nation or a people. They also have great ability with the English language to communicate that vision, using language to give life to our dreams and impulses. Abraham Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union. Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Harry Truman wanted to contain communism. Ronald Reagan asked people to “stay the course” during the darkest days of the Reagan revolution to strengthen defense, cut taxes and relimit government. Vision begets confidence and trust.
Pragmatism. Successful presidents, according to Dallek, have been men who would cut a deal to make things work. Franklin Roosevelt ran against big government, but presided over the largest expansion of government to that time. FDR was so “pragmatic” that Herbert Hoover once described him as a “chameleon on plaid.”
Consensus-building. Successful presidents have been people who knew how to forge a consensus among disparate interests. They also knew that they could achieve their ends with a simple majority — 50% plus one — and that efforts to build a “grand coalition” would be very costly, take time, delay action and water down the result when it happened.
Charisma. Successful presidents have been able to use their persona, the power of their personality, to help achieve their ends — as Teddy Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit.” A president may not be able to tell the people what to think, but he can mightily influence what they think about — the classic description of agenda-setting.
LBJ, like Teddy Roosevelt, was bigger than life — an image he also cultivated. Once, when he was Senate majority leader, the German chancellor, trying to make small talk, asked, “Let’s see, you were born in a log cabin weren’t you?” “No!,” replied Johnson, grinning ear-to-ear for everyone in the room to see. “You are thinking of Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger.”
But all great presidents represent something bigger than themselves: Ike was a father figure, Reagan was a great communicator, and FDR transcended his own physical disability. Each of these qualities made each president more persuasive and more effective.
Credibility. Successful presidents are reliable. They have the capacity to maintain public trust. Citizens trust them to tell the truth. When that is lost, presidents have a hard time leading.
Luck. Presidential greatness is helped along by good fortune — as Dallek said, “fated by circumstance.” Napoleon once said he would rather have a lucky general than the one best skilled in the arts and science of war.
So there is one view — and not a bad way to assess our pool of presidential contenders, including the incumbent. Some are clearly wanting, including the incumbent.