When engaging in the national pastime of arguing about politics, Americans often like to claim that any candidate (besides the one they support, of course) is not qualified for the job of President of The United States. Usually, such petitioners don’t actually explain what they think the qualifications are, so it’s difficult to have a productive conversation about who is qualified and who isn’t.
Occasionally, someone will claim that a particular candidate is too stupid to be a good president. While I think that it is possible to be too stupid to be an effective president, I don’t think we’ve had many candidates like that in my lifetime. You can actually try to estimate the general intelligence of our recent presidents, by using good proxies like standardized test scores. According to these measures, none of our recent presidents have been tremendously intelligent, but all have been above average.
So then, what are the important qualifications to be an effective president? If you ask people what they like, they’ll say things like honesty, integrity, justice, and perhaps, intelligence. I like those things too.
However, those things are not on my list.
The Prince makes the case that for a Prince (e.g. a leader), unscrupulous means are sometimes necessary to achieve the greatest outcome. The Art of War devotes much of its time towards the military use of deception.
The President is someone who is flanked by adversaries on all sides. The President is locked in power struggles with all foreign leaders – even those who are our allies. Every nation ideally does what is best for itself, and sometimes that means allegiance, and sometimes it doesn’t. But we must always remember that every other nation always acts in its own interest – no our own.
The President also has adversaries here at home – certainly in Washington DC. The political party that opposes the President is constantly looking to undermine the President’s agenda. The opposition party is constantly looking to weaken support for the President and to embroil him in controversy. It doesn’t matter who the President is or what his policies are; the opposition, by definition, opposes. The only occasions where this is not true is when opposing the president would be self-destructive; e.g. it would make the opposition unpopular with their own supporters. For example, in times of war, the opposition will often cling to the President because Americans fiercely love their country. (This is one reason why presidents like to start wars)
If the President is surrounded by enemies on all sides, we could say that the President is on a field of battle. The Art of War tells us that the wise general chooses the time and place of each battle to maximize his own advantage, and maximize the enemy’s disadvantage. The wise general uses deception to maximize his advantage, and to scatter and confuse his enemies.
1) An effective president conceals his true plans, goals, and motivations
An effective president is an effective general. His enemies do not know precisely his strategy; they do not know where he will strike or where he will defend. All parties must react to him. To use modern military thinking, he must always be inside the OODA loop of all of his adversaries.
The problem with this is that people say they want an honest politician with integrity. Certainly, I want those qualities in most people, most of the time. However, when we vote, we’re not choosing our neighbor or our pastor. We’re choosing the guy who has to beat all of his enemies. We hope his enemies are also our enemies, and if they are, then we want our President to win, every single time, and if the conflict is dire enough, we won’t be too picky about the methods employed.
Only the survivors are afforded the luxury of second-guessing the methods by which they survived.
2) An effective president can tell when people are lying to him
Choosing the conditions of battle carefully requires the employment of deceit, but the other side of the deceit coin is not being deceived. Each general seeks to deceive his adversaries, but all his adversaries also seek to deceive him.
Additionally, the people who serve the President are also people. They have their own ambitions, their own temperaments, and their own circumstances. History is filled with stories of rulers who were manipulated into acting foolishly by clever advisors or subordinates.
Yet the president absolutely depends on advisors, his cabinet, and indeed, the entire executive branch, to see most of his will put into practice. People still argue about the reasons going into the Second Gulf War. Were military advisors, or the CIA, lying to President Bush? We don’t know. What we do know is that Bush’s job was to figure out who was lying and who wasn’t – and to make the correct decision.
Determining if people are being honest with you is a people skill. You are likely to find it amongst successful poker players. Not everyone has this skill. We can see some evidence of people who don’t have it. There are people in our society who are regularly victimized. They don’t have this skill, and they don’t know they’re missing it. We have many people who have been victimized once or twice; they don’t have the skill, but they know it and compensate by being wary of others.
I’m not precisely sure how you identify someone who does have the skill. Having a lot of money (and keeping it) is probably a good indicator.
The point is, if our President doesn’t have this skill, he is useless. He cannot even depend on surrounding himself with people who have this skill, because without having the skill himself, he won’t know if his trusted advisors have decided to start deceiving him or not.
3) An effective president can tell if others are competent at their jobs
We’ve already stated that the president depends on others to implement his will. We’ve already stated that the president doesn’t have genius level intelligence. The president cannot possibly know how to do all of the jobs that are being done by his subordinates – it is likely that no human being is sufficiently intelligent to competently perform every job in the executive branch.
Yet the president is responsible for all of the results of all of the people in his organization, which includes both the US armed forces, and the entire executive branch. The president also needs to use people outside of his direct command; he needs to influence them to achieve his aims. This means influencing members of congress; it means influencing foreign leaders also.
The president is only effective via the manipulation of other people.
So, he needs to know if those people are able to do their jobs effectively. If someone is incompetent at their assigned role, the president must know.
The president can divide people up into two groups: folks that he can replace, and folks he must live with. He can replace members of his cabinet, or of the executive branch, or in the upper ranks of the military. In general, the president can replace his subordinates.
The president doesn’t have the power to replace everyone, however. He cannot replace congress members; he cannot usually replace foreign heads of state. (Although our history indicates that many presidents have tried, and some have succeeded!)
The president must understand the competency of both types of people. It is often to his advantage to replace incompetent people who are under his control; he should replace them because they may be impediments to his agenda.
When the president is dealing with a person he cannot replace, and who is incompetent, he must know this also. The president must work around incompetent people if he cannot replace them. If a “friendly” member of congress cannot deliver the votes that the president needs for his agenda, he must find other people or other means of realizing his agenda. If the president needs a certain outcome in a foreign nation, there’s no reason to exert leverage on an incompetent head of state; he must target the truly effective and ambitious people in that nation instead.
In short, the job of the president is getting other people to do what he wants – even when they don’t want to. In order to do that, he needs three skills, and they are all people skills. He needs to be good at deception, he needs to be good at not being deceived, and he has to understand if people are good at their jobs or not.
Notably, an effective president does NOT need to be honest, friendly, just, loyal, or anything else that we generally consider good qualities in a person. The president will display those qualities, at various times, because at various times those qualities will help his agenda. That’s all.
Americans know this, but we don’t like to admit it openly. We want, above all, the guy who will do whatever it takes to beat our enemies. We like winning. We also understand that, without survival, there isn’t anybody around to argue about what’s moral.