Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Now that Harry has asked ...

The Palin and Obama uprisings do raise the question: what knowledge or qualifications does it take to be an effective president of the United States?

That is a seemingly simple question, but despite knowing up front it is far harder to answer, I will take it on anyway.

The POTUS, like any leader of a large organization, particularly a leader subject to popular acclaim, obviously requires sufficient intelligence and curiosity to learn a brief; some talent for the Machiavellian nature of politics; leadership ability; a reasonably deep knowledge of US history, and sufficient charisma to garner the votes required to get the opportunity in the first place.

So, in order to help answer this question, I shall offer myself as the sacrificial lab rat. Given the list of qualities the POTUS should possess, do I, particularly in terms of experience, qualify? If so, is there any reason to conclude either Obama or Palin do not? If not, should lack of experience be disqualifying?

Here is my CV, in brief: undergraduate degree in International Relations; graduate degree in Computer Science. Twenty years in the military as a pilot, including combat experience, three year tour in the Pentagon, and squadron command. General manager for a small software and hardware engineering company. Software engineer at Ford. Airline pilot. I read The Economist cover to cover every week. I have a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution on my desk. I have read a lot of history books. However, despite the best of intentions, I haven't yet finished the Founding Documents.

From that it is seems safe to conclude I could master any brief at the abstract level of detail the POTUS should occupy. It also appears I have demonstrated at least some ability to make decisions, and some practice making them. Moreover, so far as the CV definition of experience goes, if I am qualified -- in the sense of being able to understand the parameters of a situation, and make effective high-level decisions, then so are a great many other people.

However, beyond some breadth of life experiences, left completely unturned are leadership qualities, Machiavellian tendencies, and vote getting potential.

Like athletic talent, those are things with which one is born. Or not. For example, during one assignment late in my career, my boss's boss was one of the two most natural leaders I have ever known. His boss, with essentially identical experience, could not lead a drunk-fest in a brewery. Other than noting one person's ability to get others to willingly follow an unpopular course of action, and another person's equally amazing ability to divert people from what they would otherwise willingly pursue, the talent remains beyond description, and independent of experience.

Just so with the ability to ditch conventional notions of right and wrong when Machiavelli inevitably beckons, or the ineffable sense of presence that, as much as any substance, awards victories in debates.

So, in the shambolic course of this post, I hope to have demonstrated that, for the easily described qualities we look for in a POTUS, attaining them is no special trick, and requires no particular list of ticked boxes. On those terms, I would consider myself qualified; similarly, I think most that frequent the post-Judd alliance are also eminently qualified.

As for the other, less easily quantified, qualities, experience is meaningless. One either is capable of decisive leadership, or is not. No amount of training or experience will lead to anything more than niggling improvement.

Consequently, unlike, say, a surgeon, trial lawyer, or pilot, I think experience for POTUS is greatly overrated.

Instead, we look for proxies for the undefinables. McCain's conduct as a POW provided an opportunity to demonstrate innate courage. Obama's ability to arouse near religious fervor demonstrates charisma, and indicates at least the potential for true leadership. Palin's ascent from humble beginnings to political success demonstrates tenacity and an ability to make canny political calculations.

Of all the things I for which I would fault Obama, lack of experience is not one of them. Not only do I not think it particularly relevant, I don't think "experience" is at all predictive of success. I seriously doubt any additional accumulation on that score will cause him to reconsider ideas that should long since have been reconciled to the ash heap of history: equal pay anyone?

Just so with Mrs. Palin. While I do not share her religiosity, her instincts lead her to advocate policies that will work far better than the collectivist nonsense emanating from the left. And the matter of "experience" will disappear in comparison to the way she displays the intangibles over the next couple months.

Was it William Buckley who said any dozen people picked at random from the Boston phone book could run the city as well as the elected politicians?

I wouldn't go quite that far with respect to the Presidency. However, regarding experience, I think it completely overrated.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I think most Americans vote on character and don't pay real attention either to stated policy objectives or experience. I know I do.

However, the ineffable factor I was thinking about was ability to select good helpers.

POTUS has an impossible span of control and 3K appointments to make.

George Bush's judgment in selecting his junior executives has been about the worst in history, comparable to Harding or Grant.

It's close to impossible to judge how a man will do in selecting subordinates, too. FDR was either good or lucky at it, George Marshall is acknowledged as a genius at it.

Marshall was so outstanding that his ability in this regard maybe was expectable. But FDR's? Not so much.

September 02, 2008 1:15 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry -- "FDR was either good or lucky at it (appointing people" Oy vey!

Skipper, I couldn't agree more.

September 02, 2008 1:28 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper For President!!!

September 02, 2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Marshall, Stimson, Nimitz, Knox, Bush (heh heh)?

A good lineup in anybody's book and look at all those Republicans!

FDR wouldn't have had the vainglorious incompetent MacArthur if the MSM hadn't made it impossible not to appoint him either.

September 02, 2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger David said...

This is a trick question, right?

There are three qualifications for the Presidency:

1. Being at least 35 years of age,

2. Being a natural born citizen,

3. Getting a majority in the Electoral College or a majority of the states in the House of Representatives.

Everything else is commentary.

September 02, 2008 3:17 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Hey Skipper For President!!!

Hmmm ... obviously this came out like a message of which I approved, rather than what I intended.

Which is --- I don't think the President's tasks are so intellectually formidable as to prevent a goodly number of Americans -- among whom I would consider you and David for a couple examples -- from effectively occupying the position.

Average life experiences, combined with above average intelligence intellectual curiosity suffice to cover the tangibles. (Well, that and what Harry mentioned: a decent ability to pick subordinates).

Complaints about Palin's, or OBama's, lack of experience are just silly.

September 02, 2008 3:22 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper,
Your post was clear. I just couldn't resist a little snark. Sorry.

September 02, 2008 7:37 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'a reasonably deep knowledge of US history'

And I would like to say, other histories as well, but, you know, I'm not so sure.

Reagan knew next to nothing about our history and what he did know was wrong. And I think he was a lousy president, but lots of people don't agree.

Incurious George does not seem to know much of anything about anything. And I think he has been lousy, too, but, again some don't agree.

None of his associates seem to know much history, either, and I don't exclude Rice. She has written some appallingly naive things about post-WW II international affairs.

Clinton knew a lot of history but was not an especially effective president. Wilson was a professor of US history, for pete's sake, and he was the worst president we ever had.

All in all, I think this is one of those qualifications that seems obvious but in real cases doesn't correlate well.

September 02, 2008 11:08 PM  
Blogger Bret said...


I think both Reagan and Bush were more knowledgeable about history than many give them credit for. For example, According to Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis: "I can only speak for myself here, but something I did not expect was the discovery that he [Bush] reads more history and talks with more historians than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy."

September 03, 2008 9:13 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ya think?

He sure doesn't know anything, even now, about the history of southwest Asia.

I'll agree that knowing the history of southwest Asia would not have seemed high priority for a candidate in 2000, and once you're a president your opportunities for catching up are small.

I cannot think of anything Bush has said about US history, either way. At least he does not keep referring to an imaginary history the way Reagan did.

I wish I had not given away my copy of a collection of essays edited by Peter Paget (forget the title). That was where I first encountered Condoleeza
Rice, many years before her name ever appeared in news columns. Her contribution was just appalling, I remember wondering where in the world she came from, she couldn't be American.

September 03, 2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

It's kinda like "Moneyball" for politics, isn't it? Everyone has their metrics and intuition about who is a five-tool talent, and who has the right-stuff, but many popular proxies are poorly correlated with future performance.

If the presidency can be compared to finding a NFL QB, most of picking one is luck.

September 03, 2008 5:40 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

If the presidency can be compared to finding a NFL QB, most of picking one is luck.

Which is true of all political systems.

Thereby highlighting the single most important advantage of democratic government: the opportunity to turf the bugger every four years.

September 03, 2008 5:47 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well. I don't think it's a coin toss and neither, I expect, does erp.

There are better and worse presidents. Allan Nevins thought that the four presidents up to 1860 had a big role in driving the nation to civil war because of their indifference.


And it matters who surrounds and supports one. J.Q. Adams ought to have been as traditional and conservative a president as any of the people here could have wanted, but he was a failure as a president because he didn't have any following.

September 03, 2008 10:22 PM  

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