Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Difficult a Job Is President of the United States?

A few days ago I told TheWife that I wanted to make a bumper sticker that read, "This time could we please elect the smart one?" Then yesterday, Carly Fiorina, a McCain surrogate and major economic policy adviser said that Sarah Palin was not qualified to run a major company. But that's alright, she said because that isn't what she is running for. When the feces hit the fan, she was redispatched to do damage control and say, well, I don't think any of them are... (Yes, taking Carly Fiorina's advice on corporate leadership is like taking a nautical safety course from Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez.)

But I think there is something very important in the original claim. For Republicans, it really is not that important to have someone who knows the world, who has a deep educational background, who is a careful critical thinker. Between the bumper sticker idea and the Fiorina brouhaha, I responded to a post over at Sweating Through Fog, one of the Republican blogs on my blogroll, who was drawing what I contended was a false equivalence between Obama and Palin. The primary disanalogy being that Obama has not only the intellectual firepower, but has developed critical habits of mind as evidenced by many things including his editorship of the Harvard Law Review. The naive response would have been the one we saw pushed for Bush and against Kerry four years ago. Being President is about intestinal fortitude and that thoughtfulness is wimpiness, indecisiveness. It is a mark of being part of the "elite" to prefer the brain to gut. One delegate at the Republican National Convention said that she liked Palin because it gave her the sense that anyone could be President.

The thoughtful response actually given was:

There are really two separate aspect to a successful presidency. The first - Head of State - requires social grace, deftness, and ability to express the feelings of a nation. Academic skills are of little use there. The second, the executive aspect, requires skill at picking the right people, listening to competing advisers, and the ability to maintain leadership of political coalition as circumstances change. I'm not sure that academic skills have great usefulness there easier.

So your assertion that the presidency requires someone with extraordinary academic credentials - like Obama - is just plain wrong. If I were to rank Presidents of the 20th century by academic skills, I think Clinton, Carter, Hoover and probably Wilson would be at the top, and I don't see a president of historical greatness there. Reagan, FDR and Truman would be near the bottom of the list, and there are at least 2 great presidents there. So if there is some correlation between SAT scores and a successful presidency, I'm not seeing it.
Certainly, it is true that educational success is not sufficient for Presidential success, but isn't it necessary in these times of economic, geo-political, and environmental upheaval?

When you look at the folks the Republicans nominate, Bush Jr. and Reagan are the most obvious examples, there is a deep sense of anti-intellectualism. Smart is bad. I think the key is that when you don't want the ship to sail much, you don't look for a skilled captain.

Democrats, on the other hand, expect more of government and that means needing extremely competent people at the stern. I referred to POTUS as the hardest job in the world and did so without intending hyperbole. The economy is incredibly complex, the political situations around the globe require deep understanding of the inter-related facets of history, religion, politics, resource distribution, our environmental problems require an ability to grasp scientific results. The breadth and depth of mind needed to be the ultimate authority strikes me as stunning.

The response was,
I'm not certain that the presidency is the hardest job in the world. Things that come to mind that are harder would be brain surgeon, major league shortstop, space shuttle commander and concert pianist. We tend to exalt the office, supposing that only someone with superhuman, almost Godlike, capabilities could master it.
So, the question for you folks is, How difficult a job is President of the United States?