Exactly what makes someone look presidential? It’s more than a cool demeanor and the ability to perform effectively under stress. Being well educated and smart is not sufficient; there are many well educated men and women who can’t lead. Being experienced is not sufficient; there are many experienced people who remain ineffective. Being heroic is not sufficient; a single shining moment is often not a predictor of general competence in the long haul. More than anything else, being presidential is the ability to build and lead a team that is agile and effective. A national leader must be proactive, articulate a clear vision, draw good people to him and inspire everyone to work together.
The political campaign process is a high pressure test of organization and leadership. If you look carefully at how the candidates run their campaigns, you see a preview of how they will govern. I learned this first hand in 1990 when my wife ran for congress. A political campaign is a business. Everyone works flat-out for months at the marketing of the candidate, building to a single day when the voter chooses between the candidate and the competition. Every move is scrutinized by regulators, and every mistake will be exploited unmercifully by the opposition. The winner takes all, and the losing team ends up broke and out of work.
The candidate creates a campaign organization, part of which the candidate hires, and most of which is recruited volunteers. There isn’t much time to select them or train them. A national campaign requires managing, motivating, and coordinating thousands of people and spending millions of dollars.
The candidate, like top business executives and military commanders, relies on a staff of experts and specialists. They are generally autonomous leaders in their own right, and conflicting opinion and divergent advice is routine. Key decisions are rarely clear-cut. Information for strategic choices is always incomplete. The candidate must make decisions, harmonize the conflicts, and set the direction for his team. It’s messy and challenging in the extreme. The pace is grueling. The work day is limited only by one’s capacity to tolerate loss of sleep, and the work week is 7 days long. Every waking minute is scheduled, and “the office” may be the back of a moving bus, or an airplane seat. There is almost no time out of the view of the public or the media.
We can gage how each of the candidates might perform as the chief executive of the USA by how his campaign runs. The McCain campaign has seemed impulsive and chaotic, and the message fragmented. The image of the candidate has been that of a politician from central casting: superficially smooth, but lacking character and stature. The theme has seemed copy-cat, adopting a “change” message after the opposition demonstrated that change had traction with voters.
Transparent attempts to smear the opposition overshadowed McCain's reputation for character and straight talk, and little in the way of vision or high-purpose was presented to differentiates the platform from the Bush years. Undecided voters could find little to embrace as hopeful or positive. There have been remarkable high-profile defections from the McCain base of conservative support, notably Christopher Buckley and Colin Powell. Political cartoonists have negatively characterized both Palin and McCain daily. After a scheduling fiasco with David Letterman, McCain had to admit that, “I screwed up” because he blew off his scheduled appearance. Such breakdowns typify the McCain campaign.
By contrast the Obama campaign has been quietly efficient focusing the public on the candidate’s platform and deflecting negative attacks. Like a military operation, resources have been targeted skillfully in key states. David Plouffe, the campaign manager, has been low key but effective in calling upon his base for support, getting highly visible volunteer participation and financial contribution. Obama comes off as cool and reasoned under fire. Few major public gaffes have happened. Those that did were tangential to the main message of hope and change. Prestegous endorsements have affirmed Obama as the best choice. Obama’s campaign has been a clear demonstration of competent leadership and effective team building.
Look closely now and in the days ahead to see what the two campaigns reveal about leadership. Is the campaign coordinated? Is the candidate is in control and calling the shots. Is the organization agile in responding effectively to a rapidly changing political environment? Are the resources used well? Are the desired results being produced? Are gaffes kept to a minimum? Are the tactics and strategies consistent with a presidential image and our national interest? Is there a show of integrity under fire? Would you want our country run in the same way?
Though not perfect, thus far Obama/Biden could not look much better, and McCain/Palin could not look much worse.