I’d like to put forward a new candidate. Her name is Hillary McCain-Obama, and she is perfect! She has all the credentials needed to be a great president. She is a wonderful legislator, has great military experience and projects a unifying and inspiring presence that mesmerizes not only people here in the United States, but all over the world. And as an African-American woman who is not trying to hide her grey hair, she is poised to make history.
The point of this absurd exaggeration is to show that none of the presidential contenders is perfect for the role, but then, very few presidents were; the role is too demanding of people who want to fill it. The U.S. presidency involves many responsibilities and it is nearly impossible for one person to have the talents or the energy to be equally strong at all of them. No wonder Thomas Jefferson called the presidency a "splendid misery."
A president must perform three main functions. He must be head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief. Since each of these has elements that contradict the others, no one person can fit the bill.
The head of state, in the words of Charles de Gaulle, should embody "the spirit of the nation." This person is the face of the country, the king surrogate, the symbol of the values for which the nation stands. The head of state should be able to unify people at home, and not alienate people abroad, although for the United States not alienating is obviously not enough. The U.S. head of state must be able to lead those nations that recognize and defend human rights, carrying a symbolic and self-proclaimed crown of the leader of the free world.
Being an effective head of state requires a big picture personality, great oratorical skills, charisma, and the ability to project strength and calmness during times of turmoil. Skills such as tear-dropping and teleprompter familiarity are not required but can be a plus.
The head of government is a less glamorous but equally important function of the U.S. presidency. It involves putting forward legislation to Congress, directing administrative agencies, and making and implementing budgetary and taxing proposals.
Effective heads of government are usually detail- and content-oriented individuals with great negotiating skills and many well-established contacts. They believe in the power of legislation and that behind-closed-doors hard work, and not lofty speeches, gets things done. In the middle of the battle for the democratic nomination, for example, Hillary Clinton made a now-infamous remark that "the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society." She was referring to the Civil Rights movement, and to the fact that it took Lyndon Johnson, the president and not the movement leader, to realize Martin Luther King's dream. Clinton was also reminding voters that Barack Obama, her main opponent for the democratic nomination, despite his tremendous oratorical talents and potential to be one of the strongest heads of state America has known, has only a few years of legislative experience.
There is a conflict of expectations between the positions of head of state and head of government; being detail oriented while pursuing big-picture goals is a difficult task. Very few presidents have been able to successfully perform both roles. More common are the leaders who were good at one and ineffective, to say the least, at the other. Classic cases of this natural separation are presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. While Kennedy was a very strong and capable head of state, successfully representing the United States abroad and serving as the role model for millions of Americans at home, he was a mediocre head of government who struggled to get legislation enacted. Lyndon Johnson made King’s dream a reality and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a head of state, however, Johnson lived in Kennedy’s shadow, never able to make the nation truly fall in love with him.
It is important to add that the problems Johnson faced as a president were not all from his inability to be an inspirational head of state. By mismanaging the war in Vietnam, he also failed to be an effective commander-in-chief.
The importance of the commander-in-chief function cannot be underestimated. It requires years of experience, a firm hand, and a respectable reputation. Even though a president himself fighting on the battleground, as Harry Truman put it, “the buck stops here.” Since the position involves formulating and directing American military strategy, it is beneficial if a president is knowledgeable of military affairs and, when at war, is able to help and not hinder the situation on the ground. A commander-in-chief has to be able to strike the right balance between formulating military strategy and not getting bogged down in military tactics.
Even though the position of commander-in-chief is extremely important in managing wars, it is even more important in keeping peace. Dwight Eisenhower, one of the most capable commanders in chief the U.S. has ever known, masterfully prevented the United States from engaging in the conflict in Indochina, despite the pressure coming from France as well as the U.S. Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council. Eisenhower kept the peace, and that was one of the most important parts of his legacy as the U.S. president.
So now you know how I came up with the perfect new presidential candidate. Hillary McCain-Obama’s ability to combine all of the qualities needed to be a great president is truly outstanding. Today we need her more than ever.
All three roles of the U.S. presidency have suffered a setback over the past decade. The economy is hurting, the war in Iraq continues to be mismanaged, and our world posture seems to aggravate more countries than it unites.
At the same time we cannot count on Hillary McCain-Obama to suddenly appear and, by a wave of the hand, make things right. Change will not happen overnight, and it will certainly have to involve more than one person.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that, just like the rest of us, presidents are human.
Anna Cherkasova is a dual degree master's student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is also studying Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and plans to graduate in 2009.