After the primaries, partisans promote a view of the job that—wouldn’t you know it—conforms to the shape of their nominee. Republicans convinced themselves in 2016, for example, that Donald Trump, as a businessman, would be perfect for a job that bears little resemblance to running a business, and that, to the extent it does, requires attributes precisely at odds with the ones Trump exhibited in his career.
So what should we be thinking about in this short window? I'll pick just three attributes, that don’t receive much attention. The first quality inspired this article: perspective. The American presidency is overwhelming. We ask too much of it, presidents try to do too much with it, and the number and complexity of its challenges keep growing. A White House team, led by the president, must set priorities.
We should ask whether a president, or someone who wants the job, has their eye on the most urgent issues of the moment—not just on what pundits, the opposition, or the most vocal members of their base want. Then, following Dwight Eisenhower's advice not to let attention to urgent matters crowd out the ability to think about important ones, we should ask whether a president or candidate has a system in place to tend to the important issues that require long-term thinking, because if that thinking doesn’t take place, it can’t be conjured up in the moment when a crisis hits.
The second attribute is related to the first. Does a president, or presidential candidate, know how to build a team? The presidency is not a solo job; it's an organization. The quality of the people a president hires shapes the quality of the decisions that a president will make, because they frame the options for those decisions. But a strong roster is just the start. A presidency requires an atmosphere in which bad information doesn't get buried, course correction is not considered a sin, and egos don’t get out of control. This requires a president to be what Apple’s Tim Cook calls a “heat shield” for employees: encouraging them to take risks, and taking the heat if a constituency is upset or something goes wrong. When a crisis hits, the habits of mind created during relatively placid periods will be vital. They can't be drawn upon if they don’t exist.
Finally: restraint. Our campaigns and media demand action. When the 100-day assessments start, we’ll spend a lot of time on what’s immediately visible. We should think more about what we don’t see, and the actions a president does not take—a partisan dig not made, a slower approach on one issue that allows attention and progress on another. Restraint is the key to prioritization.
This quality also shapes presidential psychology. The job includes acute moments of decision, but it also requires enduring the daily pressure of always being onstage and, more often than not, having to play a role for the public that is disconnected from a president’s feelings or thoughts. A healthy presidential brain has the restraint to maintain balance—tolerance to weather criticism, patience to let situations develop rather than stabbing after solutions, and comfort in uncertainty.