Choosing a Leader

Each candidate brings to the race a particular set of values, experiences, strengths and weaknesses, and leadership style.  In addition to assessing a candidate's issue positions, a voter must consider whether the candidate would be able to implement his or her ideas if he or she were elected president. 

Reviewing the field of potential candidates or candidates, one sees many different leadership styles.  Some are charismatic, big-picture visionaries able to deliver a rousing speech, some are skilled managers able to assemble a top notch team of people, and some revel in the details of policy.  There are those who tend to surround themselves with aides, advisors and consultants who hold fairly similar views, while others seek out diversity of opinions. 

A great deal of research has been done into leadership and there are many different models and theories on what makes for an effective leader and what prompts an individual to gravitate toward one candidate or another.  One useful perspective is offered by Robert Deutsch, a public communication anaylst and cognitive anthropologist.  Deutsch argues that a candidate must convey three attributes at the same time.  Familiarity means we perceive the candidate is like us.  Appeasement means we feel the candidate cares for us as individuals.  Power means we see the candidate as being more than any one ordinary person; he or she is somehow in control of events.

Conceptions of leadership may change over time or in different cultures.  Television has elevated the importance of external appearances.  Historically, a candidate's physical appearance had some effect; for example it is recognized that taller candidates may have an advantage.  In the television era, it is important that the candidate have no "edges" that will jar viewers or come across as "too hot."  Ability to speak in sound bites can trump laying out a reasoned argument.  The parties have at times selected nominees from the business world or the military, but that has not happened in recent decades, and it seems as if voters want candidates with at least a little experience in elective office.  The 2008 campaign saw an African American, an Hispanic and a woman candidate running for president, breaking new ground.

A campaign organization is designed to present the candidate in the best possible light, and it behooves the voter to look at information from a variety of sources, including both favorable and unfavorable views of the candidate. 

A candidate's record offers a starting point for insights into his or her leadership style and ability.  Has he or she demonstrated an ability to get things done or meet difficult challenges in his or her particular realm?  A candidate's character ties in with the leadership question.  Questions such as "Do I trust this guy?" (1) and "Is he stable?" weigh into a voter's decision-making.  Traits such as courage, temperament, persistence, and wisdom are attributes linked to leadership.  A president must be able set a direction and goals, but also have the ability to move the country in that direction and attain those goals; that may require working with an unfriendly Congress, negotiating with various interests, or tacking in one direction to get to a different direction. 

The election campaign itself provides an opportunity to consider leadership.  In a campaign there is a lot of chaff, minor controversies that crop up, charges and countercharges, stagecraft, packaging and posturing.  Looking carefully at how a candidate organizes and conducts his campaign can offer further insights into his or her leadership abilities.  Is he or she willing to stick to his or her position on a difficult issue, challenge voters or think outside the box, or does he or she cling tightly to party orthodoxy.  At the same time, one can also ask if the modern campaign, with its bevy of consultants, emphasis on raising money, and premium on sound bite politics, bears much connection to the type of leadership required from a president.

An incumbent president seeking re-election has an edge in conforming to the image of a leader because he is surrounded by the trappings of office.  He arrives on Air Force I, he gets "Hail to the Chief" played, and he speaks from a lectern with the presidential seal on it.  Incumbency can be an advantage for a president not only in terms of symbolism, but in the concrete actions he can take during the campaign to "buy" support.  During the 1992 Fall campaign, for example, the Washington Post compared President George H.W. Bush to " a department store Santa Claus" and Detroit News writer James Gannon described "a flying fountain of federal aid."