editorial | Who has the essential qualities for presidential leadership – Biden or Trump?


BY FRANK H. MACKAMAN

The most frequently asked question in these quadrennial presidential election marathons has to be “Who will win?” But that’s the wrong question. With unrest deepening here and abroad, the question should be, “Who will rule us well?”

Let me suggest that it is possible to identify the elements that account for accomplishment in the Oval Office. If you know what they are, it can help you decide who is best suited to lead our nation. Based on a careful study of 13 presidents since World War II, there are six dynamics that define presidential success. (Adapted from “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama,” Fred I. Greenstein, Princeton University Press, 2009.) We need to look for evidence of a candidate’s ability to combine these factors into effective leadership.

Vision, the ability to inspire, is the first factor. The goals of a successful president are explicit, clear and consistent. His vision is more than an ideal – it also captures political reality. In this, rhetorical presidents have excelled: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

To get things done, you need political skills. Lyndon Johnson, for example, used his formidable political skills to achieve a viable unity; to foster and marry public support, even enthusiasm, for measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Public communication is the third essential skill. A president must be able to explain and persuade, a skill that takes more than eloquence. A successful president must appreciate the power of the chair of intimidation, present himself appropriately and effectively, feel the words matter, speak with conviction, and master information.

Successful presidential administrations demonstrate organizational effectiveness. A big part of the chair, as they say, is waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Has a president, or a candidate, demonstrated the self-confidence necessary to select competent people? Does it have the ability to rally staff and effectively structure their activities? Is he able to promote cooperation and build teams? Does he understand relations with other government institutions? Dwight Eisenhower excelled in organizational effectiveness.

Voters need to be accountable for a candidate’s cognitive style, his beliefs about how the world works and why he does it. These beliefs serve presidents by providing a frame of reference for raising and evaluating policy options, for filtering and making sense of information, and for setting limits for action. The components that make up the cognitive style include memory, an openness to new ideas, the ability to grasp abstractions, the knowledge to use precise historical analogies, the ability to quickly access the central essence of problems, a flexible mind and intellectual strength across a wide range.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to deal with one’s emotions and transform them for constructive purposes. How well does a candidate understand their emotions and recognize their impact on their performance and relationships with others? How realistically does he assess his strengths and weaknesses? Does he have positive self-esteem? Can he keep his disturbing emotions and impulses under control?

Call me the old fashioned way. I want a president who has a cohesive view of America, who has the ability to bring our warring political factions together, who can explain what he wants to do and why he wants to do it, who surrounds himself with people who can being smarter than he is (but not threatened by them), who has the humility to admit a mistake, and who has the curiosity and self-confidence to take on the challenges of the office.

Frank H. Mackaman is the historian of the Dirksen Congressional Center. The opinions expressed here are his own.


Kevin E. Boling

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