October 11, 2016
You don’t need my expertise in evaluating personality from demeanor to have been struck by the night and day differences between Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton in their recent debates. Does either one of them have the traits most desirable in a president? To help make that judgment here is my list of the most desirable personality traits in a President of the United States.
Certainly one characteristic is a lack of impulsiveness, or to put it more positively, toleration for ambiguity. Jumping to conclusions before as much evidence as can be gathered is obtained would be a drawback. Wanting to know about a variety of choices, with the possible advantages and disadvantages of each could serve a president well, with the proviso that sometimes fast decisions may be required.
Tolerance for risk-taking is a second desirable trait. Should we want a president who is risk adverse or one who, like a downhill skier, enjoys the thrills of taking risks? Neither! We need a president somewhere in between, occupying a middle ground — but such ground isn’t always available. The decision about what to risk should depend on estimates of the possible gains and losses, but that can’t always be known. Sometimes it may depend on the president’s personality.
Presidential advisers walk on shaky ground. Failing to warn about risks will later be seen as a drawback, but such warnings can be interpreted as the result of a lack of conviction or personal strength. During the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy reportedly left the room so that his advisers could argue their viewpoints without worrying about how the President might judge them. During a crisis the president needs advisors who feel free to argue for diverse alternatives.
We live in a world where there is not always, perhaps not even often, certainty about the consequences of whatever action is taken. It is a gamble, but to the extent possible, it should be a considered gamble, taken with knowledge of all the feasible choices available and some estimation of the odds.
Transparency, the willingness to share with the public all that can be made known about the decision-making process is desirable in a democracy if we are to have an informed populace. At a minimum, that transparency should include, at some point, acknowledgement of when transparency was judged not possible. Secretiveness, expecting betrayal and protecting against criticism by not being transparent will over time breed public distrust. Such distrust undermines a leader and erodes the prospects of someone seeking leadership. Frequent news conferences in which the president has to publicly answer questions should be mandatory.
Willingness to take the blame rather than blaming others is another characteristic desirable in a president. It may not be the president’s fault when things go wrong, but usually expressing regret for having failed to avert a bad outcome is better than not acknowledging it, blaming it on bad advice, or claiming it was unavoidable. No one expects perfection; admitting mistakes sometimes wins respect. A president will get better advice when the advisers know they will not be scapegoated if following their advice led to an unfortunate outcome.
Principled actions taken with explicit consideration of how they fit with what the founders embraced should be another requirement. The Constitution and the first Ten Amendments provide a moral framework, as well as the many books about ways to interpret those documents, what they meant to the founders and how they should apply today. This requires that presidents know, accept and seek to act consistently with that heritage, not just momentary advantages available that day. Even when the outcome is not what was sought the refusal to act expediently because it would have been contrary to the founding principles of our country will help the public accept the situation.
Considering these five desirable traits will be most useful during primaries when there is a choice among candidates within the same party. Once each party has chosen its candidate considering these five traits may still be helpful in identifying and trying to remedy or minimize vulnerabilities in the party’s candidate. Evaluating which candidate has which traits may also aid undecided voters.
We must remember when we make our judgments the limitation imposed by our inability to converse directly, let alone question a candidate in a back-and-forth interview.