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Our presidential candidates

Any qualifications at all?

March 2007

Wondering why candidates for the U.S. Presidency with no leadership experience are taken seriously.  Perhaps they shouldn't be.

Seen in the Help Wanted ads:
"The Citizens of the United States of America are now accepting applications for the position of Chief Executive Officer of the government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States.  Applicants should demonstrate ..."
Let's imagine that we, the citizens of the U.S., are preparing such an ad for the paper.  How should we complete it?  We're hiring someone for the most important executive position in the land.  What should we consider suitable qualifications in a candidate for this critical management position?  The Constitution is no help:  The President must be a "natural born" U.S. citizen, at least 35 years of age, having lived 14 years in the U.S.  It sometimes seems as if the American people feel that those qualifications are sufficient.  No, let's add to those a good smile and hairdo, and a speech writer who can turn out a slick phrase.  There, I think we've identified the key points that many voters take into account when electing a new President.

Let me suggest a notion, perhaps shocking:  That the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. military forces and Chief Executive of the U.S. Government ought not to be someone who has never held any kind of executive position.  How can we even consider hiring a person as President of the United States who has never been in a leadership job?  Is this notion, that the U.S. Presidency is not a trainee position, not self-evident?  As this is being written, the political pundits in the American media are focused on one question:  Which of the two current "frontrunners" for the Democratic Party's nomination for President (i.e., Senators Obama and Clinton) will take the prize?  In their interminable discussions on this theme, the thing that amazes this writer is that not one of the pundits has raised the point that neither of these two individuals has ever held a responsible job; that is, neither has ever held a leadership, managerial, or executive position of any kind.  Neither would get past the first cut of candidates for a mid-level management position in any small-city government.  The greatest number of people either of these "candidates" have ever been in charge of is apparently their current Senate office staff.  Are the American people seriously considering that sufficient experience for the top executive position in our government?  The idea is bizarre!

There is perhaps a good reason why U.S. senators rarely get elected to the Presidency.  The last time was 47 years ago.  I suspect that's because while they've shown skill with the mouth, they often have no relevant experience with leadership.  Being a Senator requires some skill at political deal-making, but Senators make no executive or managerial decisions; it is not a leadership position.  They certainly don't bear individual responsibility for public policy. The American people have generally seen through the hollow senatorial blather and have almost unfailingly chosen Presidential candidates who run on the basis of leadership experience, if only as a State Governor.

To continue with the example of the current Democratic Presidential hopefuls; as neither of the Senators Obama and Clinton have a shred of qualifying experience for the job, we look at the rest of the crop and do see some bright lights – a couple of actually well-qualified candidates:

  • Bill Richardson presents qualifications one likes to see in a Presidential candidate.  As a seven-term U.S. Congressman from New Mexico he took a special interest in American Indian affairs, sponsoring several successful bills in that area.  He also showed special skills in diplomacy, traveling abroad to successfully negotiate the freedom of captured Americans from Iraq, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea.  As President Clinton's Ambassador to the United Nations, Richardson was particularly involved in the Palestine/Israel issue and in matters related to global environmentally sustainable development.  After serving as U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1998 to 2001, Richardson taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and in 2002 he was elected as Governor of New Mexico, where he is currently in his second term as a highly regarded Governor.  In recent years he has also fulfilled several missions as special envoy for President Bush to various international organizations or sensitive areas.  As a result of his efforts in international areas of conflict, Richardson has been four times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • Al Gore is not yet an announced candidate, and may not become one, though my guess is that he will.  His career is well known:   War correspondent in Viet Nam, service in the House and the Senate, and two-term Vice President of the U.S. under Bill Clinton, during which he led the "National Performance Review" of the federal government, which analyzed waste and inefficiencies and recommended tightening and downsizing.  During his Senate term, Gore wrote an influential best-seller, "Earth in the Balance", which stressed the Earth's ecological crises.  After his loss in the Presidential election of 2000, Gore has added management experience as president of a cable TV channel and chairman of his own investment firm.  Over the past two years, Gore has traveled world-wide, promoting his Oscar-winning film, "An Inconvenient Truth" about global climate change.  He has also recently taught government at Columbia University, UCLA, and other schools.  His experience before, during, and after his term as V.P. has certainly equipped him to serve as President.  A particular positive about Gore is that he appears to have a better understanding than other candidates of the world-wide environmental crises that face the Earth as a result of the growth and spread of human civilization.  As a result of his work to bring attention to global climate issues, Gore is a current nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.*
    (*Update of October 2007:  As we know, Mr.Gore was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with the U.N. Climate Program.)

I would say that a ticket combining Al Gore and Bill Richardson is probably the best the Democratic Party has for 2008.  And it would be very good indeed!

But returning to the question of qualifications:  What kind of skills and experience should we expect or demand in a Presidential candidate?  Knowledge of public policy, including governmental, economic, environmental, energy, and social policies, is a must, and suggests both academic training in such fields and considerable experience in high-level public positions.  But equally important is training and experience in management;  where Presidents have gone wrong it has often been through an amateurish leadership style that ignores managerial principles of communication, feedback, and teamwork.  (In addition to these basic qualifications come, of course, the candidate's ideas – ideas for dealing with specific issues that face our society.  For some of those, let me refer the reader to last year's essay, "Real campaign issues".)

So to finish off our Help Wanted ad that we are trying to compose:

"Applicants should demonstrate responsible and successful management and executive experience, some of which should be in the public sector.  Applicants should also demonstrate formal studies in fields appropriate to the position;  such fields include but are not limited to government, law, diplomacy, economics, education and science policy, public health and environment, U.S. and world history, military and naval forces, and public administration."

If we don't insist on serious qualifications for our top public executive, we wind up with just what we're seeing this year:  inexperienced and unqualified tyros wanting to start at the top.  Our country deserves better than that.

© 2007 H. Paul Lillebo

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