What to look for in our next president

This is a political post. If you don’t like politics, skip it.

Briefly: I like smart presidents.

Right now, 23 Democratic candidates are vying for the nomination. People are scrutinizing their specific positions, looking for disqualifying events in their past, wondering about their rhetorical skills, giving them points (or deducting them) for debate performance.

I’m thinking strategically.

This thread by Virginia Heffernan is revealing. The job of the next president is nothing less than to restore the American Republic to functioning — and use it to get things done to keep the nation and the planet from vaporizing. That is more about vision than compromise.

I don’t intend to vote for the most “electable” candidate — I think that’s meaningless. In hindsight we always assign electability to whoever gets elected. A black man wasn’t supposed to be electable — but we elected one. And neither was a bombastic business leader with no political experience — but we elected one of those, too.

Instead, I ask the question “What qualities must a candidate have to prevail in the long primary season, win a general election, and then effectively govern the country for four years?

Here’s the list:

  • Smarts. Intelligence is hard to pin down, but it includes breadth of knowledge, logical reasoning, ability to process new information, and curiosity. I particularly value long-term thinking, since it’s in such short supply among politicians. Among recent presidents and nominees, Bill Clinton was smart. So were Obama and George H.W. Bush. McCain and Romney were smart; so was Jimmy Carter. Intelligence is not enough by itself, but I can’t support an ignorant or stupid candidate.
  • Vision. This is the ability to choose a theme and communicate it clearly. JFK was the master of this. Bill Clinton did it well. Carter sucked at this. Regardless of what you thought of his vision, Donald Trump mastered the communication of it, while Hilary Clinton failed on this count.
  • Stability. It’s a tough job. Emotional reactions won’t serve a president over the long haul. And it’s a very long haul.
  • Stamina. This is not a job for people who are easily tired. Not to be ageist, but if you’re over 70, you’re going to have to prove you have the stamina to keep up the pace. The long campaign actually does reasonably well at revealing who has this quality.
  • Knowledge of government. Governing is skill. There are rules. There are levers of power. Who you know matters. You need to know how money plays in, how the filibuster works, how multilateral agreements come together, and what the military can and can’t do. “Outsiders” may look attractive, but when it comes to getting things done, in the next election, I’ll take somebody who’s been doing it for a while.
  • Creativity. You’ll have to be pretty innovative to start with the country in its current divided state and get people behind you.
  • Surrounded by the right people. Nobody knows everything. A good president is going to have good advisors and actually listen to them. The advisors matter.
  • Not corrupt. No one old enough to be president is free from conflicts of interest. But the next president has to do everything possible, not just to eliminate self-dealing, but to eliminate the appearance of self-dealing. That applies not just to the candidate but to anyone in their campaign or administration.
  • Truthful. Enough with the lying.

What’s not on my list

Notice what is not in this list. There is no idealogical litmus test. I certainly have an ideology, but it’s not the most important determiner. And if you saw the debates, you saw that there’s not that much difference between the Democratic candidates on ideology anyway. (Public Option vs. Medicare for All — is that really the most important distinction in who becomes president? They’re going to have to compromise to get stuff done anyway.)

This is also not about picking apart people’s pasts. The candidate I choose will have flaws. You’ll hear those flaws repeated endlessly, especially on Fox News. I’m more interested in what they’re going to do next. There are past actions that would disqualify a candidate, but they’d have to be pretty terrible.

This list says nothing about gender or race. I believe a woman, a gay person, a black person, a Hispanic person, a young person, or an old person could be an effective leader. I do not believe there are enough sexist, homophobic, or racist voters to make a difference — or, putting it differently, those kind of voters are not going to vote for a Democrat anyway. A candidate with intelligence and vision can win over those who are uneasy with somebody who doesn’t look or speak or love as they do, just as Obama did. I’m not letting bigots decide who is “electable” — I’m letting the candidates determine that.

Who’s in the running?

Yes, I’ll name names.

Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are the candidates that fit my criteria best. They have already distinguished themselves with their intelligence, vision, and ability to communicate. Their gender and race doesn’t enter into it — they’re simply the smartest candidates with the most vision, stamina, and leadership qualities. Beyond the issues that we’re talking about now — immigration, health care, gun control — I trust them to effectively handle the hard-to-anticipate crises that will inevitably come up and lead the country with a view towards the long term.

Joe Biden lacks vision, clarity, and stamina. He didn’t do his homework before the debate. Not good enough.

Bernie Sanders speaks only to people who want to tear things down. His appeal doesn’t extend beyond his base. I’ve had enough of that for now.

Pete Buttigieg is an inspired candidate given his youth but I’d like the next president to have more experience in government than being the mayor of a middle-sized city.

Julián Castro distinguished himself in the debates with clarity, but, like Buttigieg, has too little experience. HUD Secretary and mayor of San Antonio is not a sufficient resume.

If you are a Republican, take a good look at William Weld. He was an effective governor of my home state of Massachusetts and he has an excellent resume and background. If you’re sick of Trump and are voting in the Republican primary, vote for Weld. A President Weld could get things done, even with a Democratic Congress, just as he did in Massachusetts.

To the rest of the candidates — thanks for playing. I won’t be voting for you in the primaries, and I’m betting you won’t be giving any inaugural addresses.

Yes, it’s early. But if you share my criteria, the front-runners are already emerging.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. It’s refreshing to see a criteria list that omits ideology. Thanks.
    Warren and Harris are smart, but smarter than Rhodes Scholar Pete Buttigieg? Doubtful.

    1. I never said the smartest candidate was the best. Jimmy Carter was smart, but not the best president.

      Buttigieg is going to get a cabinet post or become a Senator. After 4 years of that, he’ll have enough political experience to be credible.

      1. Ah, OK, I misunderstood. When I read, ” they’re simply the smartest candidates with the most vision, stamina, and leadership qualities,” I thought you meant,
        They’re (1) the smartest candidates (smarter than Pete)
        (2) They’re the candidates with the most vision, stamina, and leadership qualities.

  2. I am so voting for WELD2020 and hoping for the best. If Trump gets the Republican nomination- then I will look harder at the Dems. Pete B. looks good so far.

  3. Great post (please keep broaching the topic) and thanks for a perfect checklist to assess political leadership.

    I am going to apply it to our upcoming Canadian elections (October) – it rules out 2 of our 3 party leaders, just leaves Justin….that is if he can go back to being truthful (being forthcoming is part of being truthful).

  4. Your best political post yet. Thanks for the clear thinking and analysis. Keep up the good work.

  5. One comment, one question and one addition, Josh…

    No list of exemplary presidential visionaries is complete without Ronald Reagan; you may not have agreed with him, but few in or out of politics crafted better stories.

    How can Warren be included among the smartest candidates when the majority of her proposals demonstrate economic illiteracy?

    There is a clear exception to your elect-ability exclusion and that is East and West Coast liberals. By this and your criteria, I judge Amy Klobuchar the fittest nominee.

    1. Reagan was strong on vision and storytelling but not the most intelligent president. However, he surrounded himself with competent people and that made him effectively smarter. That model works, but given the choice of 23 Democratic candidates I am looking for ones that are smart themselves, not the ones with the best advisors.

      Given Warren’s background in economics I disagree about economic illiteracy, a description that could much more easily be applied to the current occupant of the Oval Office. I’ve found instructive the comparisons between her proposals and Sanders’, which go much too far.

      Amy Klobuchar needs to get her act together and inspire a few people or her candidacy will become irrelevant. Not a very good storyteller at this point.

  6. The MSNBC debate is not the best gauge considering not all were given the same amount of time to speak. Many topics require a more thorough discussion in order to distinguish who are really the intelligent and competent. Don’t be a victim of MSNBC’s bias preferences to influence your vote.

  7. The debates were an introduction. I’m listening to as many of the candidates’ audiobooks as my library can provide and it’s giving me a more satisfying understanding of their perspectives. So far, I’ve finished Buttigieg, Warren, and made to the last chapter of Sanders (at 2X). Harris is up next.

    In response to a comment above, those of us who haven’t benefited from Reagan’s bedtime stories about trickle down have a different view of what it means to have “economic literacy.”

    I appreciated Warren’s gifted approach to explaining recent economic upheavals through the impact it had on the thousands who were forced into unnecessary bankruptcy and foreclosure. She chases the “why did this happen” and the answer often is a result of deregulation and consolidation of power by those with wealth.