As you prepare for the upcoming presidential election, you should contemplate deeply what it takes to be a good U.S. President.
The field has narrowed to two remarkable individuals with varying backgrounds, experiences, and ideological persuasions. My aim here is not to recommend or critique either, but rather to offer a framework for choosing between them.
Although we can surely list some of the problems the next President needs to tackle--from Arab revolutions and global warming to China, Iran, and other geopolitical upheavals--there will probably be new challenges whose form and timing we can’t grasp yet. They may come in the form of natural disasters, military conflicts, ethical dilemmas, or crucibles that test a President’s values and global leadership at its core. So, we must choose a leader who has the necessary wisdom and judgment skills to tackle the unknown as well as the unknowable.
Although judgment and experience have been central themes in the debates, most voters lack a sound framework through which they can judge a candidate’s capacity to make sound decisions.
Past decisions are indeed a guide to someone’s values, thoughtfulness, and decision style. But judging past decisions is complicated by the hindsight bias. Decisions reaching the President’s desk are almost always complex--otherwise other government officials would have handled them.
They are fraught with value conflict and uncertainty, whether they concern issues of war and peace or domestic tradeoffs among economic efficiency and social fairness. Because chance usually plays a large role in how these decisions play out over the longer run, it can be dangerous to equate bad outcomes with bad decisions or good outcomes with good ones in any single decision.
Those who have studied decision making judge decision quality more on the basis of process than outcomes. They would ask the following questions:
1. Is the decision framed well in terms of getting to the essence of the underlying issues?
2. Are creative as well as practical options being considered for resolving the problem?
3. Is the available information sufficiently sound, or does it need to be complemented in key areas?
4. Are the deeper values driving the policy objectives proper and in line with prevailing American sentiments?
5. Are all these elements integrated into a sound decision using a disciplined process that balances the heart and the mind?
6. Is there sufficient courage and commitment to implement the chosen course of action in a timely, effective, and responsible fashion?
I hope that you will apply these criteria to your own presidential choice. How grounded is your decision frame when it comes to judging political leaders? Are you a single-issue voter or a staunch party loyalist, or does your pocketbook drive your evaluations of candidates? How good are you at sorting out conflicting information and asking the right questions? Perhaps you are overconfident, disregard negative information about your favorite candidates, or seek confirming evidence from those sharing your political leanings. How well anchored are you in core values that reflect your life experience, culture, ideology, sense of fairness, and hopes for the future? Is your reasoning sound, balancing the heart and the mind in the right proportion?
Last and all important, are you committed to following through on your choice and making it to the polling booth to be counted? Otherwise, your views matter very little.