When Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson lauded hard work and freedom from government dependency recently on Fox and Friends, the hosts asked with exasperation, “Why are you not in politics?” Robertson did not demure. He assured them, “If you ever get me in the White House, trust me, there’s a big change comin’. I mean, this thing goin’ to be so small you won’t even be able to recognize it anymore.” Radio talk show host Mark Davis would settle for Robertson’s son Willie.
It’s only 2013 and political figures are already migrating to Iowa and New Hampshire. But when politicians are held in low popular esteem, people look in hope to anti-politicians for leadership. This is why there were so many outsiders like Donald Trump (almost) and Herman Cain, and pretend outsiders like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, in the 2012 Republican presidential field. This is also why we saw a former state senator who had barely warmed his seat in the U.S. Senate elected president four years before that.
But what we have learned from our experience with the charming young man who promised hope and change without any record of ever having delivered it is that being a successful president—that is, a president who is effective at delivering good government—requires actual political, organizational, and leadership skills. You need more than good principles, a winning smile, and a teleprompter.
To bring the nation from good intentions to good laws, from big ideas to real change, a president must be able to make executive decisions and follow through on them when he does. Executive experience helps. It took Barack Obama months to make his decision on a troop surge for the Afghanistan operation. More recently he dithered over Syria. He drew a threatening red line and then did nothing to organize an international response in the event Syria crossed it. Then, when they did, he blustered about bombing and urgency, stepped back when no one joined him, called for a vote in Congress that he said wasn’t really necessary, then delayed the vote and suspended all talk of missile strikes when a diplomatic route opened up quite accidentally.
Can he get along with others? Can he cut a deal? Our government has three branches. He has to be able to negotiate with Congress—all of Congress, not just his own party. He needs the skill of persuading his opponents, or negotiating prudent and workable compromises so the perfect does not preclude the good in arranging the public business. Sen. Obama had no history of working productively with others, and in the White House he has shown no inclination to it. As a consequence, little gets done apart from mutual accusation. We lurch from gridlock to financial cliff to periodic threats of government shutdown.
The president has to know how to negotiate with foreign leaders, build coalitions, and stare down the global thugs, especially steel-eyed snakes like Vladimir Putin, who knows how to dance a newbie off the floor and out the exit. Obama boasted of how we would reason with the bad guys of the world. They have ignored him and, given that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad says he has never heard from our president, it seems he has for the most part ignored them.
Apart from a few freshman senators (Rand Paul is ahead in New Hampshire polling), the current roster of 2016 presidential hopefuls on both sides suggests a return to proven executive experience, whatever you may think of the executives themselves.