Daily Thought: Sketch of a President

We are currently in the sweltering grasp of the summer before an election year, a time when political junkies are reading tea leaves like crazy in preparation for when the rest of the nation gets caught up in the pomp of presidential horse race; debates, tv spots, radio ad buys, gossip and scandal, whisper campaigns and push polls.

The Great American Experiment has a dark and smelly underbelly that many of us can not do without, like heroin or crack. True addicts crave them just as much as they crave the honest debate, we need our fix of quotes and soundbites chopped up into little bits and pieces, spun and scattered, characterized, mischaracterized, and recharacterized until what started as an off the cuff, little contemplated comment is turned into a referendum on the candidate’s deeply held political and personal beliefs.

Cut into this drug that I freely admit to mainlining come the terms; electability, presidential, style vs. substance. Without definitively illustrating what an ideal president is, we develop a plethora of platitudes and ideals and then try to cram our chosen candidates into those concepts, or worse, we stylize the concepts around the candidate. Generation after generation, without knowing exactly what a good president is, we proclaim in opinions and editorials and lunch room discussions that so-and-so would make a good president, or this moron wouldn’t.

But what is a President? When the designers of this country deliberated over how it would be run, one thing was clear; the president would not be a monarch. Great effort was taken to ensure that the head of our state would not become an unchecked power holder unbeholden to the people he or she governed. Periodic elections ensured a means by which the country’s chief executive could be replaced every four years, and the balancing of power across three branches of government were intended to ensure that the President always had an equal governing body in place that could undue his efforts should he act against the will of the people or the letter of the Constitution.

Later term limits were put into place, and a two party system placed on the foundation of a country whose idealogical nature ebbs and flows with time further placed limitations on the president.

And yet, the President of the United States is a mightily powerful figure; at once the leading commander of our military, the singular face of a vast nation, and the highest executor of its laws. At its apex, the design of the president is a near perfect balance of power and accountability.

But this balance is greatly dependant upon the person chosen. As we have seen with President Bush, it can be all too easy for principled to equate to stubborn and wreckless. As he has spent much of his presidency riding on the backs of legal ninjas who lead him through loophole after loophole, one technicality over another, it is clear that the vague arguments simply aren’t good enough.

In sketching a good president, or even the unattainable perfect president, we must keep the failures of the past in mind, and we must eschew the trappings of our own partisan leanings. Just as a neoconservative president allowed to run rampant is a bad thing, so too may it be possible that an extreme liberal president may result in disaster. Acceptance of this can be difficult to swallow, particularly during an age where candidates are not sized up by their abilities or attributes so much as their pros and antis. The modern candidate is expected to have a hardset firm stance on nearly every issue with the slightes wavering on any given issue being the ultimate political cardinal sin.

But again, one need only look at the current administration to see the folly in this logic. Through his presidency, Bush has been the epitome of stick-to-your-gunsmanship that is much lauded among much of the political punditry, and let’s just sit back and admire how much that attribute has worked.

So it has become an ever increasing need, as we get ready to hunker down and choose a new president, to not simply sit here and try and figure out who I like the most and how to help, but to define what at least in my mind would make an ideal president. What is the mold? And this in spite of the conventional wisdom, in spite of the traditional gusts of hot air coming from the cheerleading political intelligencia.

This is by no means definitive, but hopefully at the very least thought provoking. It is also not in any way specific, but then I think the philosophy behind this becomes apparent as you read on.

Knowledgeable- In my head I combine knowledgeable and intelligent, and find them both severe necessities in an effective presidency. It’s not difficult to understand why they are vital, the job of the president when looked upon realistically is wildly complex and difficult. The mere governance of a vast and diverse nation is in and of itself no small task as you are ultimately responsible for everything from the infrastructure to the military, but this must all be done whilst working with two separate but equal branches of the government. Plus, given the relatively short amount of time a president holds office, the time for learning is minimal, the learning curve is steep.

The mind of the president should therefore be adequate to the task, and the more knowledge brought to the table the better. But there is a limit to this. As knowledge becomes deeper, it also has a tendancy to grow more specific. With this in mind, understand that the role of the president is not as a lower level manager or even a technician, but an over arching executive. By being too deeply rooted in any one particular discipline, this highly specific knowledge comes at the detriment of other bases of knowledge. A lawyer who has been practicing for decades may not be an expert in the law and the constitution, but how adequate is that knowledge when managing the environment, or the nation’s infrastructure, or the military?

To this degree, the President should be a jack-of-all-trades, having a broad and significant level of knowledge in many areas, but little to no deep, intrinsic, technician level knowledge in any. Likewise the president should have a matching intellect that allows for the adaptation of new systems, as well as making up for the lack of raw knowledge that may be necessary in the execution of the job.

Flexibility- Neither the planet, nor the United States are static. The world we live in is in a constant state of flux; technology grows at a viral rate, cultures shift from ally to enemy and back again, paradigms shift. In a static world, a president who is resolute and unchanging would help to maintain the status quo and prevent the occurance of chaos, but in a changing world like the one in which we reside, a rigid presidency would be illequipped with the fluidity of the state.

But again, this is only useful to a degree. The winds of change are ever present, but so to are the winds of public opinion, and they shift much more, and are far easier to influence. The point being that an appropriately flexible president must be one that is able to adapt to the changing currents of the world surrounding the administration, and adequately serve the citizenry, but does not flap with the slightest change of polls. This excessive degree of flexibility would render a presidency futile and ineffective.

Broadly Principled- It is necessary to make a distinction. We want presidents to be principled, or so the punditry tells us, but to what degree is rarely quantified and hardly agreed upon. When I say a president should be principled this is not to the point where flexibility is compromised, nor is this narrowly defined on a set of litmus test issues. Instead, what I consider principled is more in tune with the principles of the country as defined by the constitution. A president should be principled in the ideals that make America what it is, and principled in ensuring in the perpetual good standing of America in the world and among its own citizens.

Morality should not be defined by any one religious sect, but by a simple sense of decency. There are certain things that despite what religion you adhere to, we can all agree that such behavior is moral or not. Torturing is not moral, and attempts to narrowly define it so as to make it legal would be immoral. The rights of all of Americans to enjoy equal rights and not have them infringed upon is on the other hand an American moral. So when I say principled this is what I mean.

The dangers of being overly principled, however, draws battle lines and instead of creating a consensus, fosters divisions and results ultimately in a republic divided.

Personable- This attribute is difficult to define in one word and still avoid connotation, and yet it is important none the same. Given that a president is not a legislator, it is still important that he be able to foster strong alliances and develop a healthy rapport with Congress. A president should be capable in debate but not to the point of winning so much as to the point of inducing healthy and beneficial compromise.

Wisdom in Appointment- It is vital to understand that where a president has shortcomings, those failings are accounted for in the various appointments that president makes to the various positions in the government. It is here where the president has the ability to display the most wisdom, choosing not political operatives and allies, but experts in both management and their specific field.

Even more important, these experts should also be capable and willing to issue dissent to the president when they feel their knowledge and evidence at hand makes such dissent necessary. Further, the president should contain both the wisdom and the humility to recognize the expertise of his most trusted appointed advisors and take in their advice when they speak. The most disastrous thing a president’s appointees can ever do is envelop the president in a vaccuum, encasing him in a bubble where the only ideas that are valid are his own.


This sketch could go on forever, but there is a greater underlying theme. In no case do I endorse the extreme. The president should not be a paragon. The hubris of a paragon leads to complacency and a departure from present reality, when you can make the world shape itself to your word, you are not equipped to cope when it fails to actually do so.

This was the idea that the president is supposed to embody. Kings are perfect. Kings are ordained by God, in some societies, they were seen AS God. This, our history has taught us, has led to the detriment of the people under Kings who would be gods. The president, on the other hand is mere mortal, not the picture of perfection, merely just extremely above average.

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