by George C. Edwards III
It is only natural that citizens focus on the traits of candidates during a presidential election. After all, why do we hold an election if it does not matter who wins? One answer is that candidates support different policies. Presidents must do more than aspire to prosperity and peace, however. They also have to govern.
It is safe to stipulate that everyone wants the president to be honest, intelligent, strong, empathetic, and balanced. Most candidates claim to possess such traits, and, in truth, many of them do. What about political skills and knowledge, traits necessary for governing effectively? These dimensions of candidates receive much less attention than, say, integrity, but they are essential for successful leadership. Just what are the essential leadership traits and skills?
Understanding the Potential of Leadership
Successful leadership is not the result of the dominant chief executives of political folklore who reshape the contours of the political landscape, altering their strategic positions to pave the way for change. The evidence is clear that presidents rarely, if ever, mobilize the public behind their policies in order to pressure Congress to pass their initiatives. Nor do they convince many members of the legislature to switch from opposition to support of White House proposals.
Rather than creating the conditions for important shifts in public policy, effective leaders are facilitators who work at the margins of coalition building to recognize and exploit opportunities in their environments. When the various streams of political resources converge to create opportunities for major change, presidents can be critical facilitators in engendering significant alterations in public policy.
It follows that recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change—rather than creating opportunities through persuasion—are essential presidential leadership skills. To succeed, presidents have to have the analytical insight necessary to identify opportunities for change in their environments carefully and orchestrate existing and potential support skillfully. Successful leadership also requires that the president have the energy, perseverance, adaptability, and resiliency to take full advantage of opportunities that arise.
Knowledge and Temperament
We hear from some quarters that presidents do not require a mastery of the details of public policy. All they need is able and knowledgeable advisors. Although every chief executive certainly relies on such aides, expert advisors are not sufficient to produce quality decisions.
Presidents need to possess detailed knowledge of the issues with which they will deal. They require information about both public problems and policies, including tangible details, to construct a necessary frame of reference for decision making. How else can they effectively evaluate options and ask probing questions? How else can they sensibly choose among options?
It also matters whether the president has correctly identified a problem. If you think the Chinese are manipulating their currency to the detriment of American jobs, you may ask your advisors to formulate a policy to combat it. If you are wrong in your understanding of the Beijing’s actions, however, you will implement policy destined to fail. The devil is in the details.
In addition, presidents cannot assume that any person or advisory system will provide them with the options and information they require, and thus they must be actively involved in the decision-making process, setting the tone for other participants, maintaining the integrity of the advisory system, and reaching out widely for options and information.
President George W. Bush often described himself as an instinctual decision maker, a view shared by other close observers. Many of Bush’s predecessors shared his orientation to making decisions. A drawback to relying on instincts is acting impulsively rather than delving deeply into a range of possible options. Gut reactions also discourage investing time in soliciting and cultivating the views of others and asking probing questions of advisers.
Presidents and their aides bring to office sets of beliefs about politics, policy, human nature, and social causality—in other words, beliefs about how and why the world works as it does. These beliefs provide a frame of reference for evaluating policy options, for filtering information and giving it meaning, and for establishing potential boundaries of action. Beliefs also help busy officials cope with complex decisions to which they can devote limited time, and they predispose people to act in certain directions. Although sets of beliefs are inevitable and help to simplify the world, they can be dysfunctional as well.
There is a psychological bias toward continuity that results from the physiology of human cognitive processes that are reinforced from thinking a certain way and are difficult to reorganize. As a result, there is an unconscious tendency to see what we expect to see, which may distort our analytical handling of evidence and produces what is called a confirmation bias.
The George W. Bush administration operated on several basic premises regarding the aftermath of the war in Iraq: (1) Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators; (2) the Iraqi infrastructure would be in serviceable condition; (3) the army would remain in whole units capable of being used for reconstruction; (4) the police were trustworthy and professional and thus capable of securing the country;, and (5) there would be a smooth transition to creating a democratic nation. Each of these premises was faulty, but the administration made no systematic evaluation of them before the war and was slow to challenge them, even in the wake of widespread violence.
At other times, worldviews may encourage policy makers to assume problems rather than subject their premises to rigorous analysis. Because after 9/11 the Bush White House was highly risk adverse and because it was certain that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States, the administration never organized a systematic internal debate within the administration on the fundamental questions of whether Iraq actually possessed WMD, whether the Iraqi threat was imminent, whether it was necessary to overthrow Saddam and, if so, the likely consequences of such an action. Instead, it focused on the question of how to invade successfully.
It is not surprising, then, that the weakness of the data on Iraq never called into question the quality of basic assumptions. Intelligent, hard-working, and patriotic public officials who wished to protect American saw what they expected to see. We are still paying the price for their faulty analysis.
Policy preferences aside, it matters whom we elect as president. The winner’s understanding of the potential of leadership, skills to recognize and exploit opportunities, policy knowledge and temperament, and worldviews will strongly influence the good the nation will enjoy or the harm it will suffer during his or her tenure.
George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. His many books include Overreach: Leadership in the Obama Presidency and The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership (both Princeton). His most recent book is Predicting the Presidency: The Potential of Persuasive Leadership.