While I’ve met one or two modest politicians in my day, as a general rule the job requires one to cast off any qualms about tooting one’s own horn. To wit:
Former vice president Joe Biden said Monday that he considers himself “the most qualified person in the country” to be president and that he would make a decision about moving forward with a 2020 bid in the next two months.
His comments came during a book-tour stop at the University of Montana at which Biden also acknowledged he has some liabilities, including being a “gaffe machine,” but said none of those would scare him from running.
This raises an interesting question: What exactly does it mean to be “qualified” for the presidency, and how much should qualifications matter? As they consider the dozens of candidates running in 2020, Democrats are going to have to give it some thought.
On first blush, Biden is probably correct that he’s the most qualified person in the country. He was a senator for 36 years and a vice president for eight — and he was extremely good at the latter job, even though most of what he did happened outside the spotlight. The only person with a more complete set of qualifications is Hillary Clinton, but she won’t be running.
The trouble for Biden is that qualifications don’t actually get you elected, which was true even before 46 percent of the voters made Donald Trump the president. They might get you a hearing, but once you’re out on the trail they don’t count for much. What will probably keep Biden from the presidency is the fact that he’s not a very good candidate, as he showed twice before when he mounted failed runs for the White House.
And now more than ever, qualifications seem beside the point. Barack Obama demonstrated that if you’re compelling enough, you don’t need to have logged a certain number of years in the legislative or executive trenches to be a serious candidate; he started running about two years after his election to the Senate. His success gave permission to people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to mount presidential campaigns with modest résumés. And this year, we’re talking seriously about candidates like Kamala Harris, who just got to the Senate herself.
But it’s possible to be “qualified” even if you haven’t been a governor or spent a lot of time in Congress. You can make a good case that things such as strong relationships in Congress or experience in foreign affairs are helpful to be a successful president, but neither is necessary nor sufficient. The presidency presents unique challenges that are so hard to prepare for that it may be that personal qualities such as thoughtfulness and judgment are more important.
Think about it this way: Would Donald Trump be a better president if before taking office he had the first clue how government worked? Perhaps, but he’d still be Donald Trump. His character faults — his impulsiveness, his xenophobia, his need for ego massage — would still determine the choices he makes, with most of the same effects. He’d still be just as corrupt and just as dishonest.
Or imagine Trump wins a second term. At that point he’d have more experience at being president than all but three living Americans. But do you think that the benefit of that experience would make him more competent, less erratic or more skilled in a second term than he has been in his first?
So to a degree it’s perfectly proper for Democratic voters to not bother worrying about qualifications as they assess potential nominees. The trouble is that setting aside the CVs often means not thinking at all about the job a president has to do.
Now granted, the presidency isn’t just about effective management. We also have ideological preferences, and you might say you prefer someone who will pursue policies you agree with even if he or she might not be hyper-competent, rather than someone who is more competent but whom you’ll disagree with more often. This was essentially the position of Bernie Sanders voters two years ago. I doubt many of them would have said that Hillary Clinton wasn’t the more qualified candidate; it’s just that they preferred what Sanders was advocating.
There’s another element, too, a hard-to-define quality that attracts us to candidates: charisma. And once we feel that attraction, we decide that they’d be great at being president. In a perfectly rational world it might work the other way around: First we decide who’d perform the job best, and then our affection for that candidate would grow. But not in this world.
For instance, after mounting a surprisingly strong run against Cruz, many people said Beto O’Rourke should run for president, and they’re still saying it. But why is that? It isn’t that as a member of Congress he showed some kind of skill set that suggests he could shepherd a progressive policy agenda into law. Ask 10 Beto fans what his ideas about foreign policy are, and they’d probably be unable to tell you. By the same token, the fact that he lost to Cruz doesn’t speak to whether he’d be a good president either; had he gotten a couple more percent of the vote, he’d be the same person.
But he’s an eloquent and unhesitating advocate for progressive ideas, which not all Democrats are. He can give an inspiring speech. He’s easy on the eyes (don’t tell yourself it doesn’t help). In short, he has charisma, which is pretty rare even among politicians whose career success is built on drawing people to them. Many compare O’Rourke to Obama, and some of Obama’s former aides are offering him help.
When people say O’Rourke reminds them of Obama, what they’re saying is that he just gives them a feeling, a feeling of being excited and inspired and hopeful. Maybe O’Rourke does that for you, and maybe not. Maybe Elizabeth Warren does it for you, or maybe Harris, or maybe one of the other candidates (sorry, Michael Avenatti fans — he’s not running). But while it has connections to logic, it’s mostly emotional. It’s also possible to create that feeling in a powerful way in a good number of people, then wind up falling short (as Howard Dean could tell you).
The primaries will reveal things about all these candidates, things impossible to predict at this early stage. But unfortunately for Joe Biden, qualifications aren’t going to be enough.