We’re in the Process of Hiring a President. What Should We Be Looking For?

Here are some things to consider beyond electability and a candidate’s position on the issues.

It is understandable that for Democrats, the most important factor in choosing a candidate to support in the Democratic primary is electability. Given our current situation, nothing is more important than beating Donald Trump.

The problem with that criteria is that it is almost impossible to quantify. For example, Amy Klobuchar’s claims to that effect are no more valid than the case Bernie Sanders is making. It is possible that some of the chaos we’re seeing in the Democratic primary is a result of voters chasing phantoms when it comes to electability.

For political junkies, the conversation about who to support mostly revolves around differences in policies. One of the big ones this time around has been whether a candidate supports Medicare for All or an expansion of Obamacare. But those kinds of differences ultimately lead to questions about how much of a candidate’s agenda can actually be enacted. Even if Democrats gain a majority in the Senate and eliminate the filibuster, would Sanders be able to get enough Democrats on board to pass Medicare for All? That seems highly unlikely.

Those questions usually lead to a discussion about a candidate’s theory of change. Warren wants to get rid of the filibuster and Buttigieg has proposed structural reforms. But none of those things happen without a Senate majority combined with unanimity among Democrats. Sanders says that the millions of people he inspires to join his revolution will force Republicans and reluctant Democrats to vote for his agenda. But those claims are dubious as well.

What doesn’t get as much attention is the fact that, as every day goes by, the current president is dismantling the federal government and putting his own incompetent loyalists in charge. Any Democrat who wins in November will immediately face a colossal mess that needs to be cleaned up before anything else can get done. Which candidate is best prepared to manage that in an expeditious manner is something Democrats should be considering.

I also think about a couple of intangibles that Michelle Obama talked about during her speech at the 2012 Democratic convention.

I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are.

You see, I’ve gotten to see up close and personal what being president really looks like.

And I’ve seen how the issues that come across a President’s desk are always the hard ones – the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer…the judgment calls where the stakes are so high, and there is no margin for error.

And as President, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people.

But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as President, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.

I’ve often thought that many of the really big things a president faces are the unknowns—those that were never predicted during their campaign for office. As Michelle suggests, only the issues where the stakes are high and there’s no margin for error come across a president’s desk. In the end, it comes down to how well you listen, how fast you learn, and how well your values guide your judgement.

I am reminded of what Melissa Harris-Perry wrote about Barack Obama, having known him long before he ran for president.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.

I will admit that those kinds of qualities are even less quantifiable than the concept of electability. But as someone who hired a lot of employees in my previous line of work, I can assure you that people do it every day in the field of human resources—some better than others. Success usually hinges on having an open mind, while being clear about what you’re looking for.

When it comes to politics, we can be tricked into thinking that the only things that matter are electability and the candidate’s position on issues. I would never suggest that either of those things are unimportant. But when it comes to how a candidate will actually perform on the job, Michelle and Melissa tapped into the kinds of things that make or break a presidency.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.