Presidential Elections & Good Leaders

by Mary Rohweder

Widener University Political Science Major

Our current system of elections is not designed to produce a great president. Some of the qualities that embody a great president do overlap with those that a successful candidate may possess. However, the purposes are strikingly different. In theory, a great president is a combination of multiple attributes. A president must be a strong public communicator, active, persuasive, politically skilled, and competent. Fred Greenstein believes that a president’s public communication skills are important in order to communicate with the American people. In addition, the best presidents are active, according to James David Barber. An active-positive president possesses qualities such as being adaptive, ambitious and pragmatic as well as wanting results, enjoying political activity as a challenge, possessing high energy and capacity for hard work, having high self-esteem and flexible goals, and employing presidential power for the collective good. Richard Neudstadt also believes that a great president possesses the power to persuade, which is important in maintaining positive relations with Congress. The power to persuade is also significant in calling upon the public to support a political policy or unifying the nation during a crisis. Greenstein also believes political skill is essential. A politically skilled president understands how to effectively interact with people, other politicians, and the media. A politically skilled president also expresses All-American values and demonstrates moral respectability in order to reflect the ideals of the public. Lastly, a great president exudes competency in his political agenda. A great president must express efficiency in domestic and foreign policy, and win a war if there is one ongoing. A president must also be able to maintain a good economy. The individual running for office must possess these qualities in order to be an effective leader, but the election system does not provide the opportunity for successfully expressing most of these qualities.

A political campaign in theory is necessary for democracy, as argued by Bruce Buchanan. He believes that political campaigns should be focused upon actual politics. He explains the three components of policy signals that should ideally empower political elections: first of all, the national priorities of the issues that deserve immediate government attention must be crystallized in a broad pre-election consensus. Secondly, the election itself must stand as a ratification of the national priorities established by the consensus and create policy momentum. Finally, the politicians must take action on the national priorities in post-election politics. In his electoral triangle diagram, he explains the accountability and roles of politicians, media, and citizens in creating an environment for effective political campaigns. Political candidates must explain their policies and qualifications for office to the citizens and respond to questions presented by the media. The media is responsible for emphasizing the policies and qualifications of politicians as well as investigating the truthfulness of their claims. The media informs and protects the citizens while candidates inspire and inform citizens. Citizens learn from both the media and politicians in order to eventually provide an educated vote.

In reality, a political campaign is not driven solely by politics. A candidate will act a certain way in order to be elected into office. A successful political candidate utilizes powerful public communication for advertising, public speaking, and delivering a campaign message. A candidate distributes advertisements in order to communicate a brief message to the public. The advertisements may be negative in nature if directed at the shortcomings of the other candidate. The president does not need to create advertisements in order to promote himself or to undermine his competition or opposition. A candidate must appear likeable and articulate when speaking directly to the people in order to win their votes. The president also aspires to achieve that same balance when communicating with the American people, although he seeks their support instead of their votes. A candidate will also need to deliver a campaign message. Candidates are often intentionally vague about the specific details of their political agenda in order to appeal to greater masses. At worst, a candidate can essentially do whatever it takes in order to win or may deviate from a political party or platform. A candidate may also create issue evasion and confusion, or only take a stance when the issue matters while appearing to choose the most popular stance. However, the president must be specific in order to pursue legislation for his agenda. Although both a candidate and a president must be effective public communicators, the means of communication vary between the two roles.

The campaign itself does not demonstrate a candidate’s political activeness, although a candidate can be evaluated based upon a previous political role. A political candidate does enact persuasion by mobilizing citizens to support the candidate in order to obtain enough votes to become elected into office. The president has already been elected into office and therefore does not need to mobilize voters. A president may be concerned about their approval rating – especially if he intends to seek a second term in office. However, a president’s approval rating depends upon the evaluation of his performance and activity in office instead of the public perception of him on the campaign trail. The president does require the ability to mobilize people, whether through Congress or the public, for enacting political policy while in office. This can backfire if a politician focuses on partisan mobilization and isolates the opposing political party. A successful candidate also conveys authority and persuasion in political debates. An effective president would prepare and deliver a strong stance on a debatable issue as well.

A candidate utilizes political skill in order to mobilize fellow politicians for public support and to engage in media relations. While a president still requires political skill, the purpose changes. A president uses political strategy in order to gain the support of Congress and of the public for enacting his political agenda and for keeping the country together. A candidate also navigates the mass media. A candidate must strive to receive positive press and enough news coverage in order to stay relevant. He may channel certain American values into the natural essence of his policies, but he is subject to any scandals that may threaten his moral appraisal. The president is not dependent upon the media and can be rather selective about which media outlets he engages in, although he cannot control the media’s formulated perception of him. While candidates must be politically skilled in order to survive elections, a president must be politically skilled in order to keep the nation intact.

Candidates cannot demonstrate political competency for the presidential office. A candidate may be judged upon previous political roles, but none will be truly comparable to that of the presidency. At best, a candidate may have served on a committee for foreign policy, but the accountability is dispersed amongst a group. Candidates often try to compensate by producing large promises for what they will achieve in the office, which usually demonstrates lacking in competency. However, a successful political campaign does fundraise large amounts of money in order to pay for campaign resources and expenses, such as traveling. While the president is also credited with or blamed by the respective success or failure of the economy, the president does not need to generate national income – nor does creating a balanced budget or national surplus parallel the method of campaign fundraising. The president does not need to shake people’s hands and ask them for money in order to fund the nation’s political agendas; taxes fulfill this role. A candidate cannot sufficiently demonstrate his potential competency in office, which can leave whether a president is successful or not to chance.

While some of the qualities needed to run a successful political campaign carry over to the presidency, they do not encompass the presidential purposes. Campaigns are designed as a political machine that has the potential to be highly controlled, whereas the office of the president is subjected to different demands and significant external forces. A great president communicates effectively with the public by achieving a balanced discourse of intelligent and approachable, which a candidate may also do. However, advertising and delivering vague campaign messages drive candidates’ public communication. A candidate cannot demonstrate activeness beyond his political history, even though a great president must be able to take action as necessary. Candidates use persuasion to mobilize voters and to perform in debates while the president employs persuasion for dealing with Congress and unifying the nation. Candidates utilize political skill for seeking the endorsement of other politicians and for media relations in order to survive and win the election. The president’s political skills encompass a larger scale of influence. A candidate often makes bold promises to fulfill in office, whereas a president demonstrates true competency through efficient political policy and a healthy economy. These disparities within the definition of public communication, activeness, persuasion, political skill, and competency result in an election model that cannot single-handedly produce good presidents.


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