It’s more than fair, and accurate, to say that the coming Presidential election is about leadership, about who can best lead the United States out of the current less than favorable economic conditions and who can best deal with the myriad of international challenges facing the country.

That said, what exactly is leadership?  What shows leadership?  Is effective political campaigning and debating a good indication of leadership?

My wife made the intriguing but obvious observation that being the challenger in difficult times is far easier than being the incumbent, because all the challenger has to do is declare that times are hard and that they’re not getting any better quickly, and it’s the incumbent’s fault, and that the challenger can do better.  In essence, that was Obama’s advantage against McCain in the last election, especially since President Bush had just presided over the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, and since McCain was the Republican candidate and a long-time Republican officeholder. Now, Obama is no longer the challenger, but an incumbent who has come to realize, painfully, that inspiring words are not enough to get a divided Congress to act, and possibly that nothing is, and yet he is being held fully accountable.  That’s the nature of incumbency, even when the problems were not of the incumbent’s making, just as the financial meltdown was not totally of President Bush’s making.

What disturbed me about Obama’s first campaign and Romney’s and Obama’s present campaigns is the lack of substance and specifics.  Admittedly, Obama sticks closer to the facts, and he’s tied by his actions to more substance, not all of it good, but, as I’ve discussed earlier, and as Paul Ryan once again demonstrated in the Vice Presidential debate, and Romney has in all three debates so far, the Republicans are playing looser and faster with the facts than in any campaign I’ve witnessed [and that goes back some fifty years] and offer few if any specifics. Oh… I fully understand why this is so, and so does Obama, who avoids unpleasant specifics when he can.  Every single substantive proposal will create more opposition than support, because those who support it will be outweighed by the violence of those who oppose it.  In addition, substance takes time to present, and the media and the American mindset is geared to sound-bites, and almost no one wants to listen for very long.  So simple and practical sounding slogans trump substance.

The thirst for simplicity is also because we have the most complex government and technologically-based society in the history of the world, and simple and easy proposals invariably don’t work in practice in such a society, no matter what anyone claims.  Even when simple slogans are absolutely correct – such as, we can’t keep spending more than we have – no one really wants to look at the details, and the most successful candidate is almost invariably the one who manages to avoid dealing with details in a campaign.

So leadership appears to be measured by popular appeal, and popular appeal is determined by what people can understand and support – except that the vast majority doesn’t want to take the time to learn anything in depth about the problems and consider whether a candidate’s proposals actually make sense… or even whether a candidate has flip-flopped or contradicted himself or denied what he’s on the record as having said or done.  It all appears to be based on how impressive the man is compared to his opponent…and it helps to be taller as well.  Shorter candidates seldom win.

But does mastery of political campaigning translate into leadership? If you look at Warren Harding, Jimmy Carter, and the second President Bush, it doesn’t.  On the other hand, if you take Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, it does.

Maybe a coin flip would be just as accurate.  It would certainly be cheaper, and it might remind the candidates that they don’t have a mandate to try to run roughshod over those who don’t agree with their simplistic slogans. Then again…


8 thoughts on “Leadership”

  1. I’m for competitive examination, myself. Day 1, exam on US history and government. Day 2, domestic issues, Day 3, foreign issues and Day 4, the economy. Highest score is president, separate exam for vice president. Scoring by a neutral group – possibly the League of Women Voters. I don’t know if I’m joking or not…

  2. Jim S says:

    I’ve suggested an assessment center. The candidates are presented a problem, and asked how they would solve/address/respond, and must stay within the authority and capabilit that the Office of the President has. It would be moderated by a team with the background to determine if the plan or idea presented is outside of the Presidential powers and authority, and who would call them on it. “I would declare war on…” would be met by “No, you can’t do that; only the Congress can declare war.” for example. No magic “my budget would”; they’d have to show how they would get that budget passed. (Of course, we still don’t have a budget for this year… but that’s OK; we didn’t have one for FY 2011-2012, either.)

  3. Wine Guy says:

    The lack of specifics on both sides smacks of cowardice. Neither one has the intestinal fortitude to run a plan up the flagpole to see who salutes because they’re too afraid to see who will make fun of it.

    I have much more respect for Bowles and Simpson because they at least tried. Ryan’s deficit plan… modicum of respect, but then again, though Obama submitted budgets, he certainly never pushed to get any of them passed.

    As mentioned previously, ‘a plague on both their houses.’

  4. Mayhem says:

    One argument in favour of the Europeans then – Sarkozy & Berlusconi may have been even more corrupt than the US leaders, but they weren’t the tallest in the elections 🙂

  5. Joe says:

    Campaigning shows you understand the motivations of the voters and are able to craft a message they understand.

    Debating shows you understand your own and your opponents’ platforms and can show you have some spark of intelligence.

    But nowadays that does not indicate ability to lead because it is all stage managed: you can delegate the actual skills to others, and then just cram. The reason it looks like a facade is that it is a facade. I think Reagan’s acting set the trend.

    Things change with proportional representation. They might change more with voting for the issues, not the candidate — and not a package. It’s the bundling that means one has to choose the lesser evil.

    While I do believe in freedom of speech, I’m not convinced news outlets should be allowed to misreport the news, or even spin it.

    @Mayhem: French debates are held sitting down, which helped Sarkozy. So did the fact Segolene Royal’s debate performance was woolly whereas Sarkozy’s was confident, even if not particularly enlightening. Hollande did much better in his debates with Sarkozy.

  6. Alan says:

    Politics, as I think most can agree, is something that it is always dangerous to discuss. Few people can agree on anything once you get past three random individuals. A rule at work is not to discuss it, because tempers get heated pretty easily.

    That said, here’s my two cents.

    One: If you don’t vote, you just voted yourself out of having any opinion, bitches, gripes and moans about anything the government does. Even if you didn’t like the candidates, you opted not to pick the lesser of two evils, or nominate some one else.

    Two: It really does tend to be the lesser of two evils. Very few politicians, as previously noted, will lay out a clear agenda. Just as Wineguy said. More over, does anyone really consider what the president, or any truly highly positioned political office really accomplish? Can the president, directly or indirectly, generate jobs? Change taxes or restore the economy?

    Unfailingly the answer is no. He can attempt to implement policies which may influence these things. And other issues as well. But a Harvard study once announced that if a president initiates a policy in the first year of his presidency, the results will not be felt till his second term. The ripple effect is so far reaching and so slow moving that he won’t even know if he was truly successful or not!

    Additionally all the promises a politician makes are contingent on convincing other politicians to agree with them. And then pushing through the bureaucracy for results. No one man can guarantee results. He can certainly try like hell though. And maybe, maybe he’ll succeed in his agenda.

    Finally, what does any one really know about all of the systems on which daily lives and government rest? They complicated, strangely responding and difficult to model. The International Money Fund recently released a press statement about the austerity measures in Europe. That after all the austerity cuts called out to bale out Greece, those same cuts were not impacting the other European markets. That there could not be more cuts in Greece without further injuring not only it’s internal economy but also the greater European one.

    I only bring that up as a small example of how complicated what might seem to be a simple issue is. Greece has a lot of national debt, there for we shall reduce governmental spending. That’s backfired, however.

    The answer is also not more government spending either, obviously.

    So when a candidate promises lower taxes, more social programs and more healthcare (the latter two of which cost money not being brought in because of lowering the first), where will he get the funds?

    Clearly there is a flaw in his logic, somewhere. Well, that’s what the national debt is for, I suppose.

    Political leadership today is far more a popularity contest then it has ever been in the past. How many minorities, majorities, etc which you can convince to vote for you. You tell Peter, Paul, Tom, Dick, Harry, Jane and Mary what you believe will motivate them to vote your way. You tell Pablo, Jose and Jesus what you believe will motivate them. Round and round you go till you have the consensus to keep you in power another term.

    Real accomplishment, leadership and personal fortitude is sadly lacking. To my mind, a leader is not someone who attacks his opponents flaws, drags out trashy news and creates scandals (real or imagined). He provides a reasoned example of how his ideas should work. Why he will do better. Not why the other guy is so much worse.

  7. Mayhem says:

    I was being facetious, but looking at the grauniad figures, Europe has been pretty consistent at having shorter people as head of state over the last 40 years compared with the US/UK. They don’t mention any causes, but you might be on to something with the sit down debate idea – French leaders are definitely shorter than national average, as are the Italians and Russians.


  8. i never did understand the short/tall thing but years ago in USAF boot camp all of the file leaders were tall,go figure. the thing that is missing in all the campaigns is the fact that we have the best congress that money can buy.i guess that public funded elections are the best way to go,but it won’t happen in this enviornment.although I feel that eurozones problems can be solved without us intervention,our defense spending may play a large roll,say if we close the large bases at Rota and Torajone,this may finish tipping Spains economy over the edge.

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