How to Choose a President

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The White House with helicopter in foreground.


The president of the United States has vast power at their disposal, perhaps greater than anyone else in the world. With control of the entire Executive Branch of the government resting in this single person, including the control of the United States military, the president is able to take actions that impact everyone in the United States, indeed in the entire world, without needing the approval of anyone else on the planet.

For this reason, voting for the president is one of the most important responsibilities of a United States Citizen, here’s how to choose wisely:

While there are many qualities we might consider in choosing a president, such as charm, intelligence, public speaking ability, and good looks; in this article I am going to focus on three: policies, competence, and character. Considering each in turn, and evaluating which are most important.

As self-centered individuals, we tend to select a president firstly on the basis of their stated policies, which are variations of: “If you elect me, you are going to pay less taxes and get greater benefits. Laws will be passed to ensure you can do what you want, and to keep others from doing what you believe they shouldn’t.” And, “I will do it better than the other candidate.”

However, those of us who have been around for a few election cycles will recognize there is a game played by every politician  in the area of policy: Promise your electorate what they want to hear.

While young voters can be forgiven an idealistic belief that great changes can be made to governmental structures quickly, and will benefit everybody at no cost; older voters should know better.

Every benefit has to be paid for. Either now, in taxes and fees; or later, in future taxes and fees to make interest payments, or through inflation.

Every law gives rights and freedoms to one group, while restricting other groups.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to stop playing this game of making impossible promises. If we have a choice, most of us prefer leaders who are optimists. We want to feel we are heading towards something better. Assuming we find the promises credible, we will tend to vote for the candidate who offers to give us the most of what we value.

All politicians want to be elected. To be elected they must promise as much as possible to their constituents, within the boundaries of credibility. If they don’t, their competitor will.

Because of these factors, do not use policy statements as a major factor in deciding on a president; especially statements regarding laws and taxes. Policy statements are designed to appeal to you and get your vote. They cannot be depended on to reflect the reality of what can be done, or even a candidate’s own honest opinion about what can be done. At best, they are wishful thinking on a candidate’s part; at worst, a cynical ploy to trick you into giving the candidate your vote.

Now, let’s consider competence. I will define competence as the ability to complete the tasks required of you in a timely and correct manner.

The oath a president takes is this: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

From this oath, we can determine some of the tasks required of a competent president.

Faithfully executing the office of President of the United States can be done to some extent according to the inclination and capabilities of a particular president. Because of the complexity of government, and the complex and conflicting needs of business, social services, and the military, many of the president’s authorities will need to be delegated to trusted assistants. There is simply too much to do.

Some presidents are more detail-oriented, and others less-so. However, it is very important for the president to be good at managing their team; to make sure they are working in accordance with his or her priorities and objectives, and to catch and correct mistakes and problems quickly.

Most presidents hire a Chief-of-Staff to help them, and that person will assist with management to a greater or lesser extent. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the president to make sure the Executive Branch runs smoothly, efficiently, and according to their goals. This takes a certain level of work and skill; at the least reviewing reports, receiving regular updates on conflicts and problems that are arising, and resolving those conflicts and problems. “Faithfully”, in the oath, means with diligence, and consistent effort.

Preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution can also be performed in individual ways. At a minimum, presidents should keep themselves aware of potential military, economic, and health threats to the country, as well as threats to the democratic ideals of the Constitution, both in our own country and abroad. Again, diligently reviewing reports, receiving regular updates on conflicts and problems that are arising, and active involvement in mitigating them.

I consider the above the minimum competencies required of a president. We must assure ourselves that a candidate will be able to at least attend to these. All the other things a president may attend to, such as managing bills moving through Congress, fund raising, stumping for the next election, trying to influence public opinion, and many other things, are of less importance than fulfilling the duties imposed by their oath of office.

Finally, lets consider a candidate’s character. Character means long-term, relatively fixed aspects of a person’s personality. The character trait we are most concerned with here is where they are on the continuum between selfish, and selfless.

Will the person we are choosing put the country’s interests before their own? When an unexpected catastrophe occurs, are they going to do their best to resolve the situation in the best way possible for the most people, regardless of their own self-interest, or are they going to “cover their ass” to try to assure their re-election?

The allure of power can be immense. All politicians have a healthy ego, however for some, power has become their passion, their reward, their reason for being.

This type of person is intensely focused on maintaining and enhancing their power. It is the power of the Presidency they are drawn to, not the opportunity it might afford to protect or help others. They perform their duties (or pretend to perform their duties), only to the extent necessary to remain in office. Indeed, the focus of their efforts will be enhancing, and assuring the continuation of their personal power, not working for the greater good. The country as a whole will necessarily suffer when such a president is in office, because inefficiencies, threats, and conflicts escalate, instead of being resolved.

In order to avoid having this type of person becoming President, their character must be carefully evaluated. Once in office, it is very difficult to remove a president. Only Congress has that power, and if the president has control of one of the Houses of Congress, he cannot be impeached.

So, how do we determine a candidate’s character? We evaluate a person’s character not by listening to their words, but by observing their actions. Because character is a long-term trait, it is stable over years, and rarely changes quickly.

As we have discussed, policy statements are often short-term ploys to appeal to a particular interest group. So, they are not particularly helpful in assessing character, unless they are demonstrably consistent with a candidate’s past actions.

Even things such as professed religious beliefs, or belonging to organizations we associate with, are not reliable indicators of good character. People with a primary drive for power will associate themselves with groups that can help them attain power, regardless of their true beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words; and since a president must be at least 35 years old, we can and should consider a candidate’s history:

If they previously held elected office, how did they act? Is there a track record showing a willingness to put the needs of their constituents above their own? Or did their actions primarily advance themselves or a small group of supporters and donors?

If they have not held elected office, we should pause. Political service is complex. Holding a lesser office can be a training ground for appropriately balancing the conflicting interests of constituents, and the desire to remain in power as an elected official. These competing pressures are hard to emulate in other jobs.

However, previous experience in elected office should not be an absolute requirement. We are looking for someone who can competently fulfill the duties of the office, and will place the interests of the nation before their own. If we look at the candidate’s background, and find a history of competency and selfless action, they deserve our consideration. Perhaps they have organized movements or groups that have had a positive impact. Perhaps they have a history of selfless action on the battlefield. These histories are evidence of good character.

What about a successful businessperson? Here we must be cautious. We must recognize that the goal of business is to make money. Money is a form of power. Thus we are talking about someone who has been successful in acquiring power. We must carefully assure ourselves this person is not the type described above – primarily driven by the pursuit of power.

We should have substantial evidence of selfless behavior in other areas of life before we entrust the Presidency of the United States to someone who’s major life accomplishment has been the acquisition or preservation of money or power.

In summary, what is the most important thing to consider in choosing a president? Everything else pales in comparison to good character.

Policy statements, as we have seen, cannot be relied upon. Professed religion or beliefs cannot be relied upon. Competency is important, but a competent person seeking the presidency primarily for his or her own gain will do great damage. Having a leader with good character, in contrast, will help assure the stability and well-being of a nation.

Consider a president who is perhaps less competent, but has good character and the nation’s interests at heart. Not obstructed by selfishness, or the need to appear all-knowing, they will gather a team of highly competent assistants, also of good character, to help formulate and promote good policies – leading to outcomes that benefit the country as a whole. Thus, good character can even compensate for some lack of competency.

We should make our choice of president primarily on the basis on character, as evidenced by a history of selfless action, a history of putting the needs of others before their own.

What do you think?



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