This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Herman Cain and whether prior politicial experience is a prerequisite for being an effective president.
In running for president, candidates present not only their values and their vision for America, but also themselves as appropriate symbols of who America is and what America stands for. Candidates also make the case, based on their experience, that they are capable of leading our nation and our government.
Few will disagree that Herman Cain and his life represent an inspiring example of the values of our culture and country. I do however have concerns about his lack of political experience as I assess which of the Republican candidates I think would best run against President Obama.
Our system of government bestows on the president two particularly important roles, each in symbiotic tension with the other. First, there is the president as symbol. It is the face not only of our government but of America, to ourselves and to the world. The president is an icon of American values and culture, our power, our generosity and compassion, our diligence and hard work, our democratic and egalitarian values, and when appropriate, our righteous anger. Each candidate seeks to present him or herself in a way that captures the imagination of the American public, representing an ideal of the best in what we see in ourselves and our country.
But the president must also be an effective politician, and lead not only his or her party but also the executive branch and our government. If this is not done well, then that first role suffers. That is, if politics fails, the president—and by extension America—appears incompetent, weak and ineffective. That is not the image that most Americans want. If that happens, our confidence as a nation falters, and our reputation and influence around the world erode.
My experience has been that ‘the political arena of government’ requires a skill set and a perspective that are indeed unique, and which take time and experience to cultivate and master. While this can be said of all levels of government, it is especially true at the national level, where the stakes are highest, where most of the players are experienced masters at bureaucratic gamesmanship, and where mistakes and second chances can demand a very high price. While the fundamentals of good leadership in such fields as the military, corporations or non-profits will (eventually) transfer well into government, this is indeed a different game. Power and influence are exercised differently and different insights and experience are required for success—especially at the outset, when one is new to the job.
It seems that every president has said there’s no such thing as adequate preparation for the breadth of power and responsibility encompassed by the presidency. Successfully running an 18-month national campaign is a good start, but what does it teach you about subtly leveraging presidential power to achieve short- and long-term objectives, about cajoling obstinate members of Congress, about managing the egos and political struggles in the interagency arena, about knowing whose judgment to trust most when making critical decisions about diplomacy or national security? Doing these well requires experience in the political arena.
And yet, our last two presidents who came into the job with the most experience in Washington and in presidential politics, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, failed to get elected to a second term, though both were considered generally good leaders of their parties and the government. They failed to inspire the American people to believe in their symbolic leadership. Failing at this made their competencies as political leaders in government moot.
To be an effective president, you first have to be president. And for better or worse, the American people judge candidates primarily on how well they represent a particular vision of America and its values. After elections, they judge presidents on how well they continue to project the best that is in America, which is in part a function of how competently they lead the country in the political arena.
I am inspired by Herman Cain as a symbol of nearly all that I admire about America. And to the inspirational story that President Obama represents, Herman Cain’s brings an insider’s understanding and insight into our capitalist free-market economy, which has been struggling. Now it is time to learn more about his thoughts regarding a broader spectrum of national concerns that he, as president, would have to address. As we get clarity on his vision for America and for himself as president, we will get beneath the surface of who he is as a man.
Meanwhile, I and others like me will have to find answers to our concerns about whether his learning curve as the leader of our government in the shark tank of Washington, D.C., and as the leader of the free world in the international arena, will be too steep—and at what cost.
Jonathan Cowan: Herman Cain and the false premise of a CEO presidency
Bob Schoultz: Herman Cain vs. Herman Cain
Matthew Dickinson: Can lack of experience be a virtue?
Gautam Mukunda and Rakesh Khurana: Is there a reason no CEO has been president?