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What traits and attributes make an effective president?

What traits and attributes make an effective president?
What traits and attributes make an effective president? 08:44

A presidential campaign is a job interview. But as this presidential campaign has played out, the conversation has felt very far from the actual job the president must do in office. 

Over the last year or so, at “Face the Nation,” we’ve tried to address that by talking to some people who have an idea of what a president actually does in office, so that we might evaluate whether the people running have some of the qualities that might pay off when they get the job.

The insights and analysis from these interviews vary, but a few key themes stand out: the need for intellectual curiosity, the virtue of maintaining flexibility, both in means and ends, and the ability to convene an experienced, diverse staff that will tell you what you need to hear.

Gates on what he looks for in a new president 01:16

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates told Dickerson in May, during an interview at William & Mary, that one thing united each of the eight presidents under whom he’s served. “Each one of those presidents…understood he did not have all the answers, and surrounded himself with experienced, thoughtful people who would give good advice, and they were willing to listen,” Gates explained. “They would often make their own independent judgments. They often would act contrary to the advice they were receiving. But, nonetheless, they only acted after they had listened to different points of view and then had the opportunity to make up their mind.”

A president must be “willing to listen to people, willing to adjust your positions,” Gates added.

In a panel discussion in August, former Health and Human Services Secretary and Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt suggested multitasking is also a virtuous trait in a president – especially the ability to absorb and mediate sometimes-contradictory pieces of information.

“A good metaphor to think about the White House and the job of the presidency would be an air traffic controller with 500 planes in the air at any given moment, all of which think they’re about ready to run out of fuel or need to make an emergency landing,” Leavitt explained. “There’s a lot happening. There’s a lot of voices. And you need a person who has the temperament -- that’s a word that’s been used a lot today -- that has the ability to operate in an orderly way, that has a history of making good decisions for fire, and that can deal with it in an atmosphere where there’s going to be a lot of conflicting voices and people saying unpleasant things about him or her, and that -- and respond to them in an appropriate fashion.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who also served as the first secretary of homeland security, said that a president should have a sense of “empathy” and “humanity.”

“Someone who has the leadership qualities that combine respect from the body politic, Republicans and Democrats alike, someone who projects an empathy and a humanity,” Ridge said, describing the traits he’s looking for in a leader. “I remember what Jack Kemp used to say: People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. And we need somebody that kind of projects that image to Americans.”

What makes a good president? Experts say experience matters 20:46

Ridge flagged consistency as another virtue, arguing, “We need a candidate who is the same person as a candidate and as a president.” And he agreed with his fellow panelists that a grasp of policy minutiae and an appreciation of complexity would serve a president well.

“Ultimately, we need someone that is decisive, with good intuition, with really good intuition, who can distill,” he said. “It’s the most complex 21st century. I don’t think any president will have ever inherited a more complex world, whether it’s the global economy, the scourge of terrorism, the digital forevermore. And we need somebody who is willing to listen to different points of view and be decisive once…he or she decides to make that decision.”

Former Maine Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen echoed Ridge’s points, and he added that a president should look beyond “yes men” for advice.

“He should have or she should have access to good information and exercise judgment wisely, so someone who thinks deeply about serious issues and who speaks clearly and uses language to educate, to inspire, and not to inflame,” Cohen said. “And I would say that a commander in chief, given all the complexities involved, you need to have a group of people who are also wise, seasoned, and will give you advice and not be simply yes men and women, but be willing to challenge you on crucial issues, to say that you are wrong and need to change.”

Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, drawing on his experience advising presidents on intelligence and covert matters, suggested “temperament” and “integrity” are paramount.

“I boil it down to my most critical conversations with the president, which have been about covert action,” Hayden explained. “And, here, that temperament, honesty, integrity thing really matters, because when you’re talking to the president about a covert…I mean, it’s covert for a reason, because, frankly, operationally, ethically, legally, the course ahead isn’t all that clear. And so when I’m talking to a president about that, I’m representing all the men and women at the Central Intelligence Agency. I want to know that I’m talking to a decent human being. I want to know that I’m talking to someone who broadly reflects the values of the country that we want to defend.”

Extended interview: Barack Obama, July 24 34:13

President Obama himself discussed the traits and attributes a president needs during a July interview with Dickerson - a subject on which he admitted he’s “biased.” Mr. Obama advanced the argument that a president’s staffing decisions can really make a difference in terms of his or her ability to enact an agenda. (Recall the old saying: “Personnel is policy.”)

“The first thing I think the American people should be looking for is somebody that can build a team and create a culture that knows how to organize and move the ball down the field,” Mr. Obama said. “And the reason for that is, because no matter how good you are as president, you are overseeing two million people and a trillion dollar-plus budget, and the largest organization on Earth. And you can’t do it all by yourself. And so you are reliant on really talented, hardworking, skilled people, and making sure they’re all moving in the same direction, and doing it without drama, and not worrying as much about who is getting credit, and creating all those good habits inside of an organization that I think are critical.”

Mr. Obama also identified “discipline” as an important presidential quality.

“The second thing I think a president needs is a sense of discipline, personal discipline, in terms of doing your homework and knowing your subject matter, and being able to stay focused, helping to make sure that the team in the White House is disciplined, because you are responding constantly to unexpected events. And you have got to be able to just work those through in rapid, effective fashion, but also not lose track of your overall goals,” he said.

Mr. Obama suggested a president should combine a broader vision of the goals he or she wants to achieve with a detailed, specific understanding of the policies and proposals that can help that vision become a reality.

“The third is, you need vision about where you want to take the country, and you have got to know ahead of time enough about the economy and foreign policy and American history and, you know, our system of government, so that, when you stake out a vision that we need more economic equality in this country, you’re just not making assertions. You’re actually able to drive policy forward to achieve the vision,” he said.

And finally, Mr. Obama added, a president needs a “moral compass” to serve as a reminder of why he or she sought the office in the first place.

“You have to really care about the American people – not in the abstract, not as boilerplate, but you have to really every single day want to do your best for them, because, if you don’t have that sense grounding you, you will be buffeted and blown back and forth by polls and interest groups and voices whispering in your heads, and you will lose your center of gravity. You will lose your moral compass,” Mr. Obama explained. “ “But if you really are here because…I want the make sure that woman who is working really hard is getting paid a decent wage, I really want that family with a sick kid to make sure they’re not losing their home, then, even when things go bad – and there are going to be times in this job where things go bad – you have a frame of reference. You know why you’re doing it. And that means also that you can push through and do some things that may not be politically popular initially.”

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