Voting for candidates implies we have criteria.
Voting for a candidate is akin to marriage, though more of a general and limited partnership. Nevertheless, decisions once enacted, we voters and those we elect are going to be together for a while. Thus, voting, not to be taken lightly, ought to be well-considered. When the president-elect takes the oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he promises to do so “to the best of my ability.”
Ability becomes the major reason for choosing the president, as with any candidate for office. And with ability comes principles; the best candidate who will do his best must be found to deliver to the utmost on principles. For our political life together as a nation, the United States Constitution frames both the requisite functions and those basic principles explicit to the conduct of every serving president.
Whether we citizens, who constitute the electorate, vote for what the Constitution so clearly specifies depends initially upon our familiarity with and practical allegiance to this basic organic instrument of our national life. Despite such an essential pronouncement as to how we ought to carry out our responsibilities as electors, we seldom regard our candidate selection as if the Constitution even existed. The typical quadrennial cycle of nominating and electing a president proceeds and has proceeded historically without much reflection on the Constitution and as if no attendant criteria exist.
Tacitly, we presume to be choosing the best possible candidate as we advance through the nominating and election stages. Accordingly, what are the bases for our choice and where are they articulated? A 2008 book by Alvin S. Felzenberg, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), questions the past rating systems; a step towards criteria. In a popular article, presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, uses the records of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to identify ten “Secrets of the Great presidents,” Parade (Sept. 14, 2008). Let us welcome these two new steps towards criteria among a very sparse literature. Such contributions to our central political decisions are all too rare.
Yet, any election process so unreflective and absent of clearly articulated criteria amidst so heavy a responsibility does not seem to befuddle us at all. Amazingly, the U.S. Presidency, widely regarded as the highest office in the land and the most important in the world becomes occupied largely by whim and often by accident. Think how lucky we have been, for the most part.
The history of the presidency is though the nation has gone on a journey and successive presidents have chosen a route that turns out to be a rollercoaster ride. We have selected presidents that vary widely in their abilities and principles. We have elected and then re-elected men to the presidency even when they gave little evidence of being either able or principled in the ways the Constitution asserts. As an electorate, we have made terrible mistakes and then in utter foolishness stood by our mistakes either out of an exaggerated sense of loyalty or mere psychological inertia to consider alternatives.
Our Constitution’s Article II sets out the major responsibilities of the President as executive, Commander in Chief, appointer of executive staff and commissioner of officers, namer of justices, reporter to Congress and initiator of legislation, conductor of foreign affairs and negotiator of treaties. The President must enforce the laws. All these duties presume the ability to deliver them.
The Constitution enumerates a number of principles, both generally in how its functions separate into branches and its powers share out among branches, and specifically in such pronounced places as the preamble and the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. All these principles presume the ability of presidents to understand them and subsequently seek their full effects.
And so we come to Barack Obama. Why should I vote for him as opposed to his chief contender? Obama embodies essential principles that are at the bedrock of our common good; Obama exhibits profound abilities that the office requires and the times necessitate most emphatically.
1. Obama recognizes that the president serves all the people. He transcends all the ties that have bound candidates in the past. He has moved beyond the obvious of affinity, ideology, and particular issues.
2. Obama understands that equality before the law is the door to the opportunities that the United States holds in store for all.
3. Obama grasps that security is two-fold, consisting of peace with attendant harmony, and economic well-being, widely shared. Security of this kind is necessarily global.
4. Obama realizes that he is part of a much larger apparatus of government in which he has a key responsibility to lead by initiative and deliver by facilitation. He knows the Constitution has a well-established basis of shared power. He is neither so egoistic or foolish as to think that it is up to him alone.
These four principles, so well held in his psyche and persona, set the stage for the unfolding of his abilities. Without abilities, a president can have all the principles he can identify and muster, but they will come to naught.
5. Obama can bring people together in agreement and common action. This ability, his most practical and practiced skill, is an outward one. Therefore, we may see it as his most obvious and beneficial skill, but concord comes from and integrates the other principles and abilities.
6. Obama has a fund of knowledge from study, reading and experience that informs his thinking and shapes his consciousness. Consequently, though he is relatively young, he is wise. Translated to action, such wisdom means he knows alternatives and can choose soundly among possibilities. Internally, he knows the boundaries of his own knowledge, when to seek more information beyond his current limits, and therefore when to turn to others for their specialty and expertise.
7. Obama can distinguish among the relative worth and applicability of the advice that he seeks and receives. As Machiavelli alluded in The Prince, that tract of political praxis, the good of a surround of wise advisers is lost on the fool.
8. Obama delegates. He knows the inescapable truth that he cannot descend to every detail and in executive fashion must depend upon others to do their assignments, make decisions within overall aims and directions, and be responsible to him in their work, reporting and advice.
9. Obama encourages, accepts, and integrates challenges contrary to his own knowledge and experience. He recognizes the fallibility of human capability and therefore seeks his own enlargement through correction. Those of received minds miss this central virtue; they regard it as inconsistent or weak. The ability to change the mind far exceeds mere flexibility as the learner moves on towards greater capacity through correction and growth.
10. Obama has presence. The expression, “he is presidential,’ becomes him. In these times, we desperately need someone who not only fits the demands of executive office, but also shows in even his most casual moments that he fills the expectations of presidency. Assured in his own psyche, he inspires confidence, trust and hope of those who recognize his gifts and competencies.
Much more can be said, but this little roster of principles and abilities are at the core of the one who will lead, inspire, and in his turn, challenge us as well.
“Ten Reasons Why I Voted for Obama” prompted this article in December, but appears here for the first time.
©2009 by Roger Sween.