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Where Do Great Presidents Come From? The Campaign Trail

Where Do Great Presidents Come From? The Campaign Trail

Wednesday, 26 January, 2022 - 06:00

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf asks: “You can appoint any American citizen to one term as long as your choice has never run for president before. Who do you appoint to the White House and why?”

This sparked … let’s just say that political scientists on Twitter were less than thrilled. Hans Noel of Georgetown University, for example, put it this way: “The problem is in the question, asking people to think of a specific (great) person. The best executive is not anyone in particular, but someone who can work with the rest of the government and their party.” He added, “‘Vote the person not the party’ is perhaps the most pernicious thing in political thinking.”

You may be wondering just what’s so wrong with a hypothetical question that it could rile up people who study the presidency and the US political system, and who of course understand that it was not intended as a literal proposal to do away with elections and let one of us just select a president.

The first thing is the implied importance of the president to begin with. Presidents are important political actors, but they have all sorts of constraints in office, including that they are only one person within a presidency that includes a large White House staff and others within the Executive Office of the President. Because of this, it is easy to vastly overestimate how important the president is.

Much of what is wrongly attributed to a president’s personality, style and character really have nothing to do with such things. On many matters, anyone nominated by the president’s party would have done the same thing. On others, the interests of the nation are what count, and at least most people sitting in the Oval Office would have seen things the same way. And in many cases, the president turns out to be peripheral at best to decisions that are actually made by Congress, by the courts, by executive branch bureaucracies, by state or local governments or by private individuals.

But I think another part of Friedersdorf’s hypothetical bothers me more — the part about appointing someone.

What’s the point of elections? We usually think of elections as mainly about the ability of voters — of citizens — to control the government. And that’s surely important! If people think things are bad, they’ll throw out one set of bums and elect the other set of bums, while if things seem good, they’ll keep the current bums in office. That does set up healthy incentives for politicians, but in a limited way, since few citizens pay close attention to politics and public affairs, and those who pay the most attention tend to be strong partisans and therefore least likely to be swing voters.

But there’s more. The process of running for office, when it’s working well, should tend to produce presidents who have the proper skills for the job. Those are (as Noel implies) political skills. Good politicians thoroughly understand the system. They excel at digging out useful information that allows them to deal successfully with those the president must deal with, most of whom represent various groups of citizens. They are good at bargaining, forming and maintaining coalitions, and more.

Elections don’t just tend to select for those skills; they also teach them to the candidates, because bargaining and coalition-building are the kinds of capabilities that it usually takes to win major party nominations. When nomination systems and parties become dysfunctional (as they were for Democrats in the 1970s and Republicans currently), candidates don’t learn the proper lessons and are likely to be terrible at presidenting if they win.

Another way of looking at the role of elections is through the lens of representation. Presidents, like all elected officials, establish representative relationships with their constituents by making promises during their initial campaigns and then governing with those promises in mind. These promises, which could include everything from specific policies to style in office, are central to republican government. The idea is that governance that will satisfy the nation results not from a president who has deep insights into the best possible policies, but from a whole bunch of politicians, including the president, who are good at picking up clues to the sorts of things that will make them politically successful — which in turn are the things that will turn out to be good public policy.

The notion of “appointing” a president is consistent with completely different concepts of government. One, which presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter espoused, is that by virtue of being elected by the whole nation, the president has some sort of mystical connection with the people and can ascertain what they really want. Such presidents often believe they know the people better than members of Congress or interest group leaders. They are invariably wrong.

That idea is often combined with a notion that politics gets in the way of governing, and that what’s really needed is expertise. That, too, is a bad bet. Neutral expertise is an important source of information for presidents and other politicians, but it is not sufficient. For one thing, no president has all that much expertise; the US government is just too complicated for any individual to know enough. Nor is it sufficient to just hire and defer to experts. The choices politicians must make involve complicated judgments, competing interests and complex trade-offs. They are, that is, political.

The best people for the job aren’t those who embody some abstract conception of greatness. They’re people who have sophisticated political skills, the kinds that are learned by running for lower offices, by serving in legislatures and in elected executive positions, and then by running for presidential nominations. It doesn’t guarantee success. Nothing does. But the democratic wager is that leaders chosen through elections, possessing those political skills, give us a fighting chance at both high-quality self-government and good public policy.

What got a bunch of political scientists so annoyed is that the other ways of thinking about political leadership are popular, and have prominent champions in US political culture and history — including presidents such as Wilson and others. There are a lot fewer people standing up for the virtues of politics as usual.


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