The country is not doing well, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the president we did select should have been clearly recognized as not up to the task. And yet the majority of those who voted didn’t recognize that (although it seems a majority does now). Why is that?
I think it’s because the criteria we use in determining who should be our president makes little sense, and has little to do with the actual job the chief executive is responsible for doing.
As the chief executive of the federal government, the president is responsible for faithfully executing the laws, for responsibly budgeting and overseeing the use of the Treasury’s resources, of leading and managing a team of high-level executives, of working with Congress on proposed legislation, and of serving as commander in chief of the Armed Forces.
Obviously it matters what the president’s political philosophies are, but that sinks almost into irrelevance if he or she cannot competently perform the functions listed above.
With that in mind, let’s consider the dynamics that led to the matchup we saw in 2012. In the Republican primary race, we had a series of people rise to the top and then fall back. Rick Santorum was the choice of social conservatives. Ron Paul was the choice of libertarians. Newt Gingrich was the choice of those who saw themselves as more intellectual and spoiling for a fight with the Democrats. For a while, Herman Cain was the choice of a grassroots group that liked his business experience and 9-9-9 plan.
Eventually we settled on Mitt Romney after all of the above fell by the wayside for one reason or another, in spite of the fact that there really wasn’t a group rabidly supporting him. He was just the last person standing, which is sort of ironic because Mitt’s background was about as strong as anyone’s with respect to the qualifications I outlined above. (And for the record, I think he would have been a very good president.)
But we weren’t talking about any of those things during the campaign. We were talking about who got off what zinger in a debate, or who committed a “gaffe,” or who was rated as more conservative by this or that interest group, or who was put on the defense by a real or imagined “scandal.” We really never talked about who was ready for the exceedingly difficult executive challenges of the presidency. The political press wasn’t interested in that question, and the candidates (often at the behest of their campaign strategists) choose to “stay on point” talking about other things.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were perfectly happy with President Obama – not because he was running the government skillfully but because he was looking out for their political interests. They had chosen him four years earlier in what became little more than a pandering contest over whether we would “make history” by electing a black man or a woman. Obama was able to give inspiring speeches, I guess, and he still thinks that’s a governing strategy. No one else seems to think it’s working very well.
Lost in all this is any thought about who is actually capable of leading – of performing the executive functions inherent to the office. Prior to becoming president, Obama had never held any executive position whatsoever. If he had been applying for an executive job at any company, he would have been laughed out of the interview room as hopelessly unqualified. Yet he was able to get himself elected president of the United States – once and then again.
That can only have happened because the way we choose presidents makes no sense whatsoever. We reward political performance, not executive achievement, when we choose the top executive for our nation. Then we are troubled when the president looks more like a politician giving a performance than like a serious executive who knows how to lead and get things done.
If someone wanted to write a book titled, “How Not to Choose a President,” it could actually be a pretty short book. All it would have to say is: The way we do it now.