Guest Column: What we should be asking the candidates

Michael Eric Siegel

The questions routinely asked of our presidential candidates are insufficient for assessing their potential ability to lead the nation. The following questions are based on my studies of the leadership style of recent presidents. The candidates’ responses to these questions — as well as evidence of how they have already “answered” them in practice ­— would, I believe, provide more reliable guidance for their leadership potential in the White House:

Vision/purpose. Does the candidate embrace a strong vision or compelling view of the nation’s future? Has the candidate demonstrated a consistent, though not overly rigid, commitment to a set of principles that could energize his White House, as Ronald Reagan did; or does he seem to stand for everything but believe in nothing, as Jimmy Carter was frequently accused of doing?

Bill Clinton campaigned on the basis of being a “New Democrat,” eschewing the outdated orthodoxies of the New Deal and Great Society, and attracted great support for a Democratic Party that could take the ideas of deficit reduction and collaboration with business seriously. By contrast, Rick Perry’s “vision” of making government “inconsequential” seemed unimpressive.

Does the candidate comprehend the difference between a compelling vision and an obsession? Was George W. Bush’s “vision” of fighting the terrorists, which seemed highly potent in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, transformed into an obsession later in his term, resulting in the Iraq War?

Strategy/execution. Does the candidate comprehend or possess the specific political skills needed to translate vision into reality? Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said, “You can campaign in poetry, but you must govern in prose.” Does the candidate understand the importance of surrounding himself with highly qualified aides — some of whom need to be Washington insiders — who can work effectively with Congress to bring about change?

It is one thing to campaign as an “outsider” and quite another to govern as one. Does the person have a track record of surrounding himself with professionals instead of friends? The difference was poignantly illustrated by George W. Bush’s first chief of staff, Andrew Card, who, when he resigned his position, said, “I’m so glad I’m leaving the White House, because now I can be George’s friend again.” The president does not need friends in the White House; he needs “courageous followers,” professionals who have the confidence to challenge a president when needed.

Does the candidate have a limited agenda? President Reagan’s focus on only three or four major policy initiatives during his early years in the White House translated into impressive legislative victories, while President Carter’s expansive agenda (summarized to his domestic policy adviser in an A-Z list, abortion to Zaire) hampered his ability to get much done.

Process/decision-making. Finally, is the candidate comfortable making tough decisions? More importantly, does he understand how to create an environment where good decisions can be made? It is clear that the development of sound decisions requires debate and deliberation, for “groupthink” can easily overtake discussion. George W. Bush described himself as being a “decider,” but he showed great reluctance to analyze the consequences of his decisions or to ever revisit them. (When queried by his first Treasury secretary about the size of his proposed tax cut, Mr. Bush responded, “I don’t negotiate with myself.”) Mr. Obama certainly encourages deliberation and even dissent, but at times, he holds back on the advocacy and explanations of decisions already made.

Guest columnist via MCT