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Choosing a president

Choosing a president

The race for the presidency is well underway, even though the 2016 presidential election is over 14 months away. 

The early polling appears to reflect that some Americans, frustrated by the stalemate in Washington, favor non-establishment candidates with little to no Washington experience or relationships. 

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These outsiders promise they can change Washington and deliver a new kind of leadership based upon their experiences in business, in the legislature and elsewhere. A candidate’s history is relevant, of course, in choosing a president. However, anyone who has worked in the White House appreciates that nothing prepares you for the demands of the presidency, because being president is unlike any other job in America.

The presidency is more than rides on Air Force One, state dinners and weekends at Camp David. It is about making decisions of such magnitude that no mortal person should be asked to shoulder alone, yet having the courage and fortitude to do so on behalf of the American people. 

While leading a corporation has its challenges, the reality is that unlike a business, our government does not exist to make a profit. It exists to deliver certain services, protect rights, punish wrongdoing and protect our nation. Similarly, service in the legislature, while important, does not impose the same types of pressure as those on a commander in chief, who places the lives of our soldiers at risk, or that of a chief government executive, who must decide whether to commute the sentence of someone on death row. Other than the president, no single individual in government has the responsibility for the health and safety of every single American.

President George W. Bush often said that the presidency is about making decisions. The president does not have the luxury of time to agonize over mistakes or worry about being criticized. Being able to sift quickly through complicated information and make an important decision in a narrow time frame before moving on to the next big decision is an acquired skill that requires judgment and the ability to prioritize. Virtually every decision is subject to public scrutiny and criticism. You have to know who you are and where you stand. Politicians and candidates can afford to flip-flop on issues when politically expedient, but our nation cannot afford a president who does. The job requires conviction and an unshakeable belief in certain core values that have been tested over time.

The source of much of the frustration of the American people with the stalemate in Washington comes from our system of separation of powers. Checks and balances exist precisely to limit federal action. The person who sits in the Oval Office must understand and accept the limits to the power of the presidency. Yes, we want our president to act boldly to confront the major problems of the day, but those actions must be consistent with the Constitution. 

Maturity often includes the discipline of self-restraint, the ability to abide by the rules. More often than not, substantive federal action is a product of concession and compromise. Politics are an unfortunate aspect of Washington, but consensus is still possible if there is trust and respect between the president and congressional leaders. Unless a president is going to ignore the Constitution and govern by executive fiat, he cannot hope to move the country forward if he is unwilling or unable to work with Congress.

The maturity necessary to recognize when to fight and when to compromise is synonymous with wisdom, which in turn comes from experience. No one is born with wisdom. It is a product of trial and error, of success and failure. It is a result of trying and doing. Wisdom comes from living. Given the magnitude and number of the decisions that the president has to make, it is not surprising that some will be wrong. A mature individual is able to accept failure, learn from mistakes and move on. Recognizing and accepting the possibility of imperfection reflects a humble spirit. Of course, a president must be self-confident to effectively lead this country, but a servant’s heart is equally valuable. 

Unless and until given a reason not to, the American people are inclined to like their president. Likability is not as important as respect, but likability can be helpful in giving the president the benefit of doubt when making a controversial decision. 

While we do not expect the president to be a saint, most Americans would sleep better at night knowing that the majestic powers of the presidency are in the hands of a good, ethical person who will not abuse the office for personal or political gain. The bonds of trust between a president and a majority of the American people are built upon shared values such as a belief in God and the power of prayer and a commitment to truth, freedom and human life and dignity. There are very few jobs or vocations where character and values matter more.

Political candidates often make statements that are not true and promises they do not keep. The president’s words, on the other hand, are a valuable currency that should never be cheapened by false promises. A mature leader thinks before speaking and does not commit to a course of action without thoughtfully considering how to deliver on that commitment. If the president of the United States draws a red line in the sand, then there can be no doubt of the consequences to any person, organization or country who crosses that line. 

To fail to respond to a direct challenge to our authority diminishes our standing in the world community and emboldens our enemies. A candidate’s speech says a lot about how they will govern if elected president.

Over the course of the next 14 months, American voters will be inundated with campaign literature, ads, speeches and debates. While helpful in informing and educating the American electorate, an inspirational speech or stellar debate performance alone does not qualify someone to be president. 

Words are no substitute for a record of achievement, of actually having had to make decisions and being accountable for those choices. We know from experience that a fresh face does not always mean better ideas or effective leadership. The job demands someone who is battle-scarred from making tough decisions, someone mature enough to accept responsibility for the bad ones and willing to share credit with others for the good ones.   

Finally it is important for a candidate to project a positive, hopeful vision for all Americans no matter their race, ethnic heritage or social economic class. The American people want to believe in a president who believes in them, not someone who is always apologetic about America. Like every other country, we have serious issues to address. However, America is strong; we are still a great country. We just need the right leadership for these times. We need a champion.

Most American voters have devoted little attention to the presidential campaigns, much less made up their mind who they will vote for in 14 months, when the world will likely look vastly different. These early polls should be judged for what they are, a tiny sampling of the American electorate, many of whom are angry over the status quo.

However, at a time when our enemies stand at our gates and when we as a people continue to struggle over the culture wars of race, religion, abortion, guns and privacy, are we really going to place the tremendous power of the presidency in the hands of someone who has never stepped into the arena of public service, nor is experienced with dealing with the types of inside and outside pressures and challenges on the presidency? 

I hope not. I advised Bush during two wars and over 50 federal and state executions. I stood on the South Lawn to greet the president when he returned to the White House on Sept. 11, 2001. Now more than ever, we need more than just a fresh face and promises. We need the next great American leader with a demonstrated record of excellence and achievement.

Gonzales is a former U.S. attorney general and White House counsel in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the dean and Doyle Rogers distinguished professor of law at Belmont University College of Law.