How to Pick a President

Turning off all media for 48 hours does amazing things for clarity. When you return, the insane and unintentional comedy of the civilized world becomes clear. As Voltaire wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh”. Among the many salient things I noticed after my media hiatus, the U.S. Presidential election stood out as the most curious drama of all. I couldn’t stop laughing, and crying, about how, despite our solemn patriotic pride, we have no idea what we’re doing. Although we’re often asked to vote, we are often too ignorant and self-centered to make good choices.

Our checkered history of presidential voting

Take a good look at the previous presidents of the united states. You can find credible literature describing many of them as both gods and as failures, often for the exact same deeds. In hundreds of U.S. history classrooms, right now, kids are writing papers about whether Reagan, Lincoln or JFK were the greatest, or the worst, presidents in U.S. History. Many historians agree it takes at least a decade to sort out the impact of a presidents actions. Yet we bet so much on rejection or approval of the last president or two: four or eight years, being less than the decade needed to have a sense of what they did well, and what they did wrong.

And experts know a president’s influence is, by design, magnitudes weaker than the public perception: one of three rings of power. By constitutional design the three branches of government keep each other in check, and no matter how great a single president is as an individual, the condition and party balance of the senate and judiciary they inherent determine their fate at least as much as their ability does. Political campaigns stress the individual, but what is harder to evaluate is their skill at working with other branches of government.

While we push as many people as possible to vote, there is no primer, handbook, or tip sheet provided on how to avoid mistakes of elections past. We’ve been doing this election thing for quite awhile, don’t you think we should review how we’ve done? Take a look and see if the way we vote has resulted in what we voted for? And perhaps make some adjustments this time around?

The mistakes we make when voting

Many people vote for self-interest. Construction workers vote for the president they think best understands construction workers (e.g. pro union), Venture capitalists vote for the president they think best serves venture capital (e.g. low taxes), and Star wars fans vote for the president most likely to ban more bad star wars movies (e.g. mandate the imprisonment of George Lucas in a room with only star wars merchandise to wear, star wars food to eat, and post 1983 star wars movies to watch, and force him to write Han shot first a million times on a chalkboard).

But how can it make sense for everyone to vote solely on what suits themselves best? It’s not a United States of Me. Certainly self interest is a major consideration in a vote, but it has to be weighed against others. There might just be people in this country, or challenges to the common good, whose needs are more important to the future of the country than our own. State and local elections often matter more for self-interest than national elections, by design.

And serious weight often goes to superficial things. The jokes about high school elections being popularity contests are apt: we are distracted by surfaces. People forget we are biased towards picking people who look like us, or fit an image of what we think a president should look like. We are easily distracted away from better measures: namely performance, or our estimation of potential for performance. Consider how the JFK and Nixon presidential debate, the first ever televised, gave the GQ-looking JFK an unprecedented advantage over Nixon: those who listened on radio thought Nixon won, while those watching on TV, thought it was JFK.

Many of our greatest presidents were less than telegenic: Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, FDR (he hid the fact he was in a wheelchair). Even Thomas Jefferson loathed giving speeches, believing he wasn’t very good at them. In our short attention span media-rich times many great voices of our past would never have even been heard. Try closing your eyes in the next debate or interview, you might just improve your analysis of what’s being said.

Many people make their list of positions on issues and try to find a candidate that best matches those positions. This is the idealists approach to decision making: why does it matter if candidate A matches your positions if they don’t have the skills to deliver on supporting those issues while in office? Or if they will cause so much harm to the nation at large to outweigh the importance of those positions. The goal for the democracy is to do the greatest good over the long term, meaning it’s likely a mistake to allow regress on many issues just to defend one.

Handy decision making tools like iSideWith, that use multiple choice questions to identify the candidate that best matches your opinions, are useful, but offer zero information on the candidate’s ability to make any of these things happen. And we forget much of what president’s do is respond to issues we never imagined we’d have to deal with (Can you say 9/11, Katrina, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis? None of which showed up on position lists for the 2000 or 2004 elections respectively).

Then consider how shallow our modern debates are: Lincoln and Douglas debated for over 20 hours in 1858, and for a senatorial race! A full days worth of debate might be too much for us today, but the modern presidential debate protocols, diminish the candidates role in representing themselves to the public. Imagine how little need we’d have for pundits and commentary if our candidates were asked to represent themselves against the other in true discourse, with wise/fearless moderators, allowing us the benefit of our own judgments.

How to decode political coverage

The simple test for any political coverage is to ask this: What does this have to do with their ability to do the job? 75% of what gets passed off as commentary on the election fails this test. What you hear is either trivia, gossip, mythology or noise. (For example, McCain’s POW status, while noble and honorable, is not a primary criteria for an executive position. Neither in the case of Obama is one’s race). Pundits have failed when their commentary circles what’s fed to them by campaign staff, instead of applying their expert knowledge to help viewers evaluate the merits of the candidate. They are supposed to help us spot the good ones, or at least point out the attributes to look for, and that can not happen by endlessly dissecting the hidden meaning of a flubbed sentence in a speech, a vague promise, or a mistake of fact, things every president throughout history and forever into the future will, as non-robotic human beings, occasionally do.

The big confusion we make is mistaking the campaign for the presidency. Running a great campaign bears little relationship to being a great president, as the many mediocre and tragic presidencies in our history proves (They ran better campaigns, right?). It’s not like the campaign consist of a presidential Olympics, with simulations and events designed to test their abilities. They don’t even get to play RISK against each other, much less, say, a Will Wright designed ‘Sim-President’ or other cleverly constructed simulation. This means our job as voters is to look past the battles of the campaign and make a decision based on how we think they’ll perform in the real thing.

How to pick a president

It’s nowhere to be found in major coverage, but smart folks have studied what traits led to more successful presidencies. Sure, these things are subjective, but they offer a better framework, based on history, for making our next big bet.

Fred I. Greenstein, Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University, calls out 6 attributes most related to success in office, a veritable scorecard for our use:

  1. Effectiveness as a public communicator
  2. Organizational capacity
  3. Political skill (obviously, but he explains specific traits)
  4. Vision
  5. Cognitive Style
  6. Emotional Intelligence

Read his descriptions of these skills, as he offers excellent, and easy to understand examples from history.

He also notes this surprising observation:

“Results of the research indicate that great presidents, besides being stubborn and disagreeable, are more extroverted, open to experience, assertive, achievement striving, excitement seeking and more open to fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas and values. Historically great presidents were low on straightforwardness, vulnerability and order.”

Which flies in the face of how the well mannered, A-student, stately-goody-two-shoes personality profile candidates are expected to fit into during campaign season.

The 30 minute prep for picking a good president

Here it is. In 30 minutes you too can have a solid grounding on what makes for a good president, and have everything necessary to make a choice truly in the best interest of the United States.

  1. Read the Constitution (10 minutes). It’s probably been years since you have, if you ever did. This is the engine the president helps run – how can you pick a president if you don’t understand what they’re running? Essential reading. Should be included in every ballot.
  2. Skim the Bill of Rights + Amendments (5 minutes). These are the rules the President and government are obligated to play by and protect. Also essential.
  3. Read the job specs for the Presidency (5 minutes). Written by former editor and chief of Time Magazine, outlines 30 attributes we should be looking for.
  4. Study the qualities that bear on presidential performance. Princeton professor Greenstein’s short, and excellent, essay (5 minutes).
  5. Make a position and issue list. Half the list should include your top issues and concerns for the next year, and half should include issues and concerns you imagine over the next ten years.
  6. Make a scorecard. With the above, you’re now informed about the history of good presidency. Make your own list of ten attributes, and use it to score the candidates.

You’re now prepared to watch debates, listen to the news, and provide historic context and bullshit detection upon what’s said by both pundits and candidates alike.

Bonus material – presidential comparative rankings for all U.S. Presidents:

Have better, more reasoned advice for Americans? How would you recommend Americans pick a president? Please leave a comment – I’d love to hear your opinions.

By Scott Berkun, September 29, 2008 [Updated September 2016]


35 Responses to “How to Pick a President”

  1. Cindy

    Excellent article…but a couple of things ‘bother’ me.

    1) The method used for ranking the Presidents was a poll. Regardless of the fact that the poll was – in theory – made up of a mix (not a balance) of ideologically diverse professors and historians, one might argue that this still would skew liberal (given the propensity of academia). For example, some may question FDRs ‘greatness’ in terms of whether his policies have created more harm than good in the long term (some argue the new deal prolonged the depression rather than helped end it and paved the way for the current welfare state). Others may question why Reagan wasn’t ranked higher in light of his ending the cold war and his economic policies (though some disagree with trickle-down theory). I wonder how the rankings would have panned out if economists were polled rather than political scientists and historians… The link to “historical rankings of U.S. Presidents” even covers this to a certain extent. In all, I agree with your method. I wish more people knew more about the Constitution and the writings of our founding fathers or understood the basic role of our Government and our President.

    2). The use of Time magazine and a Princeton Professor to define the criteria for what makes a good president also is a concern. Time is repeatedly biased toward the left. So is academia. I tend to question whether ‘effectiveness as a public communicator’ REALLY makes a great president (Clinton, for example, was a great speaker, but he’s ranked low in the list). Perhaps I’m reading this one wrong, but great speakers are often just the best bullshitters. Perhaps he means something a bit different by ‘communicator’.

  2. Scott

    Hi Cindy – thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    If you know of sources that satisfy the concerns you mention, I’d love to include them. I did a fair amount of research for this essay, and the references I included were simply the strongest I found online.

    Regarding speaking: I think of communication as a skill. It can be used for clarity or bullshit, but that depends on how one chooses to use it, a question of ethics or objectives, rather than on the ability itself.

  3. alwsdad

    An interesting, thoughtful essay.

  4. Dan Kelly

    Hi Scott,

    Very interesting article.

    I have to agree with Cindy’s point #1. The media (Time magazine in this case) and academia tend to lean to the left. So, if you use their measures and their measures alone, you’ll most often end up with a left leaning president.

    Prof. Greenstein’s 6 attributes miss the mark on THE most important things we need to be paying attention to… the candidates’ stance on various issues that are important to us – personally and as a society.


    Just because one man communicates better about the pro-abortion policies he wants to introduce doesn’t mean I want to vote for that candidate… Not even if the anti-abortion candidate is a horrible public speaker.

    PS Your link to the Bill Of Rights goes to the same link as the Constitution link.

    Here’s one option for the Bill Of Rights:

  5. Andy

    I agree that academia tends to be fairly left-wing, but TIME seems to be fairly middle-of-the-road. It’s silly to claim that *all* media has a left-wing bias, because there are clear examples to the contrary, and it would be a very strange world were that the case.

  6. JK

    A very good article, but I fear you may be preaching to the converted. Those most in need of your advice probably won’t be among your readers.

    The strategy for winning the last two elections has been ‘You can fool some of the people all the time, let’s concentrate on them.’ It worked, but please God not again.

  7. AnD


    Very interesting article. I’m ashamed to say I came into this article with the thought of, ‘Oh great, another 5-question quiz to tell me to vote for that one.’ but what I got was quite an insight and an awesome read!

    I must say, you’re style of writing is excellent, and I thank you for you writing informative essays like this one! :)

    (I think I may have decided who I’m going to vote for! :-P)

    Have a good one.

  8. yen

    My opinion is that you aren’t just voting for the president, you’re voting to put a political party in power.

    So for example if you’re pro-life and in favour of low taxes, but you don’t like McCain’s temper, it’s probably still better to vote for him anyway, to get more Republicans in power.

  9. Joe

    Excellent article! Our presidential election process is a joke – at least what it has evolved into. Can you imagine IBM or General Motors, when the Board of Directors picks the next CEO (which is in effect what we’re doing – interviewing the next CEO of this country) having the two top candidates for the job stand there and answer stupid questions that have nothing to do with the job?

    I would love to see some kind of simulation, or at least have the “moderators” in these debates ask some real questions, “Senator, this, that, and the other has occured. What is your response?” And when the candidate starts to answer, then instead of answering the question starts in on a canned speech, redirect him back to the question.

    I also agree with the point that the vote has come down to “What’s in it for me?” I fear that the candidate who gets elected is going to be the one who promises the most free giveaways from the government (free healthcare, free education, tax refunds for those who pay no taxes, etc.)instead of the one who is the best man for the job.

    I also like the links to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I’m afraid there are too many people voting in the presidential election who have no idea what it is the president actually does.

    However this election turns out, it’s going to be an interesting four years.

  10. Jack Mackenzie

    A good essay. But I did not see reference to an established record on hewing to the Constitution. Intellectual exercises are fine, but what has the candidate actually done? What’s the Record? What they say means nothing compared to what they’ve done. Right now we have one candidate who is all talk. The other candidate has given life and limb to the Constitution and has come back to give even more.

    Again, not issues, nor talk-talk. What is their Record on, and Record for the Constitution?

    One candidate is on record publicly stating we need to break free of the Constitution.

  11. scott anderson

    I think it’s crucial that we elect someone who will defend the constitution. Since both both party’s candidates have voted against the 4th amendment (largely with the people’s blessing) by voting for retroactive immunity for the Telcos, I think neither one is a very good choice.

    Which doesn’t leave us with a lot of options…

  12. Some Guy

    So, I guess I have to wonder: if academia, which generally consists of the more intelligent and better educated members of society, lean towards the left…what does that tell me? I dunno, but I think it’s telling that when you’ve got more in your mind than just last night’s sports scores or who’s dating whom in the Hollywood set, you don’t favor right-leaning values.

    But, I digress…I think your suggestions for picking a candidate are spot on. It doesn’t take a lot of prep work to figure out who’s going to be best.

  13. Barbara Dorris

    In reference to statements in the first paragraph of “How to decode political coverage” above … I’ve only completed reading the “6 attributes most …” and the last line – “Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes.” – makes me earnestly believe that John McCain’s experience as a POW does indeed play a big part in the elections today. The fact that he sacrificed and survived as he did shows extreme emotional intelligence.

  14. Michael Gilbert

    Love your work in general and this is a fine piece. But from my perspective, it’s deeply flawed. Other readers have brushed up against this issue, but this is my concern: What about policy?

    Not to say that effectiveness isn’t a major concern, but it really begs the question: Effective about what? What will the president MAKE HAPPEN? That’s how I vote.

    Also, I have to say, as someone who is originally from Europe, Time Magazine and American academia are hardly leftist. Maybe the political spectrum in the US has moved so far to the right that we can’t see that.

  15. T

    “Effectiveness as a public communicator” – Are you kidding me?! This has very little to do with attributes that are most related to success in office. One must ask what on earth does this guy think “success” means. Success in office would be things like protecting the people, lowering taxes for everyone while increasing efficiency of government (as much as a president could). Government is not meant to be the answer to everything like so many think. Government is to maintain military to protect the innocent, punish the bad, keep the roads maintained, and keep the utilities on… not nurse our young, not tell us how to eat, not telling us how to live, etc…

    “Cognitive Style”… WHAT?! How about cognitive skill?!

    Learn to think.

  16. anonymous

    So your first step in your “30 minute primer” is to have people read the Consitution in 10 minutes. Ahhhh, braniac, there are whole law school courses taught over a 9 months which deal with the Constitution and it’s various interpretations. Catalogs of books have been written on the Constitution.

    And you want people to read it and “get it” in 10 minutes. Yeah, ok, good luck with that.

  17. Scott


    > Love your work in general and this is a
    > fine piece. But from my perspective, it’s
    > deeply flawed. Other readers have brushed
    > up against this issue, but this is my
    > concern: What about policy?

    I thought about including a section on understanding policy, or assessing the policy ideas of candidates, but it fractured into a topic and essay all of its own. I think I picked the right 5 or 6 things to talk about. Sure there are other very important things to consider, but I wouldn’t say the essay is flawed without them.

    Frankly, the most important thing I hope comes from anyone who reads this thing is that a good percentage then go and actually read the constitution, which explains what it is, in fact, the president will actually have to do. Something I’m convinced most Americans have little awareness of when thinking about who to vote for.

    But forget my opinion: if you or anyone knows of a good primer on how to assess proposed policy, preferably a non-partisan one, please post the link.

  18. Scott

    Dear anonymous:

    > So your first step in your “30 minute primer”
    > is to have people read the Consitution in 10
    > minutes. Ahhhh, braniac, there are whole
    > law school courses taught over a 9 months
    > which deal with the Constitution and it’s various > interpretations. Catalogs of books have been
    > written on the Constitution.

    Just because there are some who spend a year analyzing a document doesn’t negate the value of someone skimming it. Film students spend weeks writing term papers about the film The Godfather – does that mean no else can watch it? Enjoy it? Understand it?

    What advice would you have for a election primer for laypeople? Other than, of course, get a PhD in political science :)

    1. chandramohan

      Good Day Sir

      I need to write an article for my staff collage on this topic ‘How the President of the United States is Elected’

      But unfortunately 6000 words. can you help me sir or email some article. i will be very grateful to you. tq

  19. Dianne

    Very well done article, but I wish you had expounded a bit on the role of the “other” branches of power, i.e. the Legislative and Judicial. The presidency is not a one man job. A hard look needs to be taken at Congress and the Supreme Court (over which the president has power of appointment with congressional approval).

    I especially enjoyed Joe’s comments about the so called debates and the power of the media. What a farce this has become! Do I really need the canned bullshit to come to a decision or the commentators “take” on the issues????

  20. Derek

    Great list!

    The media is only biased in one way or the other if you let it affect you. I read and watch all types of media, from those considered far-left to those considered far-right. They all have an agenda, some more than others, but you need to pay attention to them all. And you also need to make a distinction between journalism and opinion pieces. One popular network’s entire primetime lineup is entirely opinion and not at all journalistic, for example.

    Read blogs, read your local and national newspapers, do watch some news online (or on TV), and finally, decide which candidate will have the best chance at making our country a better place four years from now.

    That’s my criteria.

  21. Jake

    Okay, so… I believed someone mentioned in an earlier comment that what is most important is picking a candidate who most strives to protect the Constitution.

    Now, the Constitution is an amazing document, and one that rose us out of the doldrums to become the nation we are today. However, we must also realize that this document was written a long time ago, during a different time with different events, and when people thought differently. This not to say that the Constitution is obsolete. Far from it. It lays down many admirable core values to strive for.

    However, while not obsolete, one must be open to considering that parts of it may be outdated. People don’t get everything right the first time. Times change, peolpe change, and the needs of the people also change.

    So, rather than chastizing candidates who propose radical change to the Constitution, maybe we should think about the fact that it might be long overdue. I mean, isn’t that’s what the Amendments were for? No one seems to have a problem with them, and they are functionally rewriting the Constitution.

    And, simply because one does not PERSONALLY agree with a particular proposed change, this does not mean that said change is not better overall for the general population.

    That really is another thing that tends to get to me: the obsession that people have with enforcing their personal opinions onto others. This article gets serious kudos for working to deter such thinking.

    And also, I find it rather insulting that some people assume that you have to be well versed and schooled in political science to “really” understand the issues. I am a double major in Physics and Philosophy, so politics is pretty much outside my realm (well, maybe not so much with Philosophy).

    However, I am also a human being and I can see what’s going on and make decisions based on it. People get so caught up in petty issues like abortion and gay marriage (HUGE issue in California right now) rights and such. And while these issues may be important on a certain level and to certain peole, they hardly have a damn thing to do with how this country is run, and people really need to get that.

    It is infuriating to ridiculousness that people would even consider things like stance on abortion and marriage when deciding on a candidate to vote for. This country is in an economic crisis, and there are many other problems that are far more prevelant than whether or not two men should be able to get married or whether or not a woman has the right to decide whether or not to bring another life into this world. And besides, I think that logically this is a losing battle, since history has proved over and over that freedom nearly always wins against oppression in the long run, especially in THIS country. The sooner people understand this and get over it and begin to analyze the REAL issues, the easier things will be for everyone.

    And peole really DO need to make their own decisions based on their OWN research of non-partisan information on the matter instead of blindly swallowing whatever right- or left-wing gasbag happens to be on CNN at the moment is trying to shove down your throat. I think pundits are the most destructive force in the politcal machine today. Whatever their intent, they are effectively working to eliminate personal opinion by trying to frantically force their own upon others. And while I’m sure it is obvious by now which side of the fence I happen to stand on (and by the way, I really hate that you have to stand on “side” at all… we shoudl work on changing that), I still abhor pundits and lobbyists on BOTH sides. It’s cheap and underhanded and an abuse of the system, and not conducive to truth or justice in the slightest.

    Oh, and by the way, FANTASTIC article, Scott! Sorry this was such a long comment. I get heated. 0: )

    1. Barb

      well said Jake. Nice job Scott. i even got a little more then expected from this article. I use the constitution for an inventory sheet for myself and my behavior, when it comes to the craziness of our political parties today. It is extremely hard to identify whats best for my country when i am so self centered. The Constitution was a beautiful start for a great nation, so i do not want to forget where we came from!

  22. Linda

    Although I am known for being one of the most optimistic persons, I cannot be that way about our election process. I have no television, which spares me the ads. I am now ready to forgo my landline telephone as I have been contacted once too often by “candidates” or their reps.

    While everyone says they want change, I sincerely believe they are too afraid of real change, like additional parties, or a person who would advocate people taking responsibility for their own actions, or someone who would completely revamp the tax system.

    We will get what we ask for…the same government doing the same things, over and over. And everyone will continue to blame the government for all their woes.

    I will vote. I believe it is my right. I just know I will not be picking the next president.

    I also know that no one in his right mind would want the job. The candidate has to have an enormous ego, and a tremendously thick skin, along with a “perfect” family. If you think about it, that is rather frightening.

    The optimist in me does appreciate your method. I think it would be grand if everyone could read it.

  23. J. Wilder

    Very good article, I wish we could apply some type of test before people voted, in order to insure we actually understood what we were voting for.

  24. Steve

    You left out

    7. no membership with the Council on Foreign Relations

    1. A past that includes over-sight on Senate Foreign Relations Policy
    2. ideologically conservative, yet politically dynamic and fiscally pragmatic.
    3. A background in military service, yet very much opposed to the expansion of the theater of war with relation to foreign invasion

    This group is one of the worst groups of Presidential candidates in recent history. Ron Paul is the only nominal, self-respecting, and completely original choice, and he is completely ignored. The candidates make not voting at all not only the responsible thing to do but a certain “you get the democracy you deserve” moment each American should exercise. I’m actually sad and at the same time proud to say I no longer live in America.

  25. Julie

    That’s a good list. I would add that we should have to take a test based on that list. Do Americans really know what they’re voting for? If you ask most people after they come out of the voting booth, they don’t have a clue.

  26. Olivia Pearson

    I like how you said that when picking a president, you should consider their organizational capacity, and effectiveness as a public communicator. I think that these are two important skills because they will allow the president to represent the citizens of the country, and will allow them to work with officials from other nations as well. My friend and I are trying to figure out how we ought to identify a good presidential candidate for the next election. We’ll have to find someone with good organizational and communication skills to help lead our country to success.

  27. Tyler Johnson

    That’s a good point that it would be best to vote for whoever you think will do the best for most people. It would be easy to vote for whoever is going to help your specific demographic, but I could see how it would be more important to vote for the good of the whole country. I’ll have to read up on the election news and keep that in mind when deciding who to vote for.



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