The presidential stress test

GOP Reagan debate
The Republican presidential candidates stand together before a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif. From left are, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Choosing a president or party nominee is a competition, a popularity contest like "American Idol." The candidate who gets the most votes (although the Electoral College can trump the most popular presidential vote getter) wins the prize. 

The presidential winner doesn't receive a million dollar recording contract (the book contract comes later) -- but the prize after months of back-breaking campaigning is to take the wheel of the United States and potentially drive it to a promised land or into a ditch (with an assist from Congress).

On the road to the White House, candidates interview with voters via a variety of debates, fundraisers, meet-and-greet events and media coverage. Popularity is what counts. Candidates listen carefully to image consultants and rely on polls to see which way voter winds are blowing. Polls are a currency that underlies strategic shifts and flip-flopping.

All the candidates talk up their qualifications, outlining how they are better suited to run American and make decisions that will keep the country safe and bring it back to prosperity for more than the "one percent."

Their backgrounds, statements, speeches, voting record, families, friends, counselors, hair styles and lifestyle are intensely scrutizined, but there is no stress test to see how a candidate might perform in the actual job.

What if presidential candidates had to go through a battery of tests, beyond the battery of debates, to assess who is best qualified to run a relatively young, energetic, confounding country that sits on top of the world, governing more than 300 million people who largely are divided into two tribes competing fiercely with each other for dominance on issues of morality, economic policy and justice.

An independent body could devise a battery of tests using computer simulators and game theory. The most powerful computers available would be programmed with the complex, world-in-the-balance decision-making scenarios that a U.S. president might experience.

Each candidate would have to solve a series of simulated crises, such dealing with a county that is an nuclear-armed ally at the same time it is funding U.S. enemies or extracting the country from a cascading meltdown of the U.S. or world economy. The software would have virtual advisers and offer different paths the candidate could take to produce different outcomes. 

Candidates would be scored on how well they perform on the tests, and in the name of transparency make the results public. It's another piece of data that could help voters make their decisions.

For example, voters might have a better view as to whether former pizza-chain executive and motivational speaker Herman Cain could handle difficult foreign policy problems. Cain proclaimed earlier this month, "when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say you know, I don't know," feeding the idea that the surging GOP candidate for the presidential nomination was not well-versed in foreign policy.

With the stress test, Cain could give voters additional insight as to whether he has the steely reservoir of intelligence, management skill, domain knowledge and decisiveness, as well as the moral compass, to steer the ship of state through troubled water scenarios. It's not the real world, but it could give a sense of how a chief executive would deal with complex, globe-threatening situations.

For now, the election process, and past history of dealing with problems of a much smaller scale than what the presidency demands, is the stress test. In the distant future, computer-based stress tests with highly sophisticated software might become part of the election process. But such a concept would unpopular among most candidates and the party establishment, unless it could be rigged in their favor. 

In the end, qualifications for the presidency shouldn't be reduced to who does best in a video game-like simulation, but a computer-driven stress test might be a good training tool for those hitting the campaign trail and another data point for voters trying to choose the most qualified job candidate.

  • Dan Farber On Twitter»

    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.


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