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.