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What have Americans learned about electing Presidents?

President Obama socializing
President Obama socializing
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Take a hike down memory lane. A few years ago, well before the Obama first term, I wrote a book titled “How to select and elect an American President.” The book has been published in articles here at Because there is a need to continue to inform the American public about how to improve the process, and because polls show Americans have keen interest in this subject ramping to midterm elections and the Presidential election of 2016, it is worthwhile discussing.

In the first chapter, Chapter 1: Need for guidance for selecting a U. S. President, I wrote the following.

"A lot of people didn't think I could read, much less write." George W. Bush speaking to Oprah Winfrey about his memoir.

At present, for most people, selecting the president is a popularity contest on steroids. When people are struggling to get along in hard times, do they spend more or less time attending to who is running for office? There is no scientific evidence to support the answer, but looking at events of the midterm election of 2010, it surely seems that the voter public was vigorously engaged in the process amid much intensity with implications for the 2012 presidential election.

We witnessed a variety of people with diverse backgrounds showing interesting in running for president, a number of which appear to be regular people from the communities in which we live. While some may seem to be “qualified” for office, others apparently lack skill, knowledge, experience, or certain proficiency. Yet, there is no formal job description and no detailed description of qualifications. That is what makes it a popularity contest with much emphasis on personalities.

I have read where the political scientists have divided candidates into two categories: 1) managerial and 2) populists. Ron Brownstein wrote a cover story for the National Journal titled “Populists versus Managers.”

“Two very different kinds of candidates will be running for the Republican presidential nomination. One thunders; the other reassures.” Ron Brownstein

Brownstein writes, “As the 2012 Republican presidential race begins to coalesce, the field is dividing between populists and managers.

The most prominent populists are former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The leading manager is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, although he could face competition from such current governors as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, and, conceivably, New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich straddles both camps but leans toward the populist side. Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a self-described ‘Sam’s Club’ Republican with an equable manner, also straddles the line but probably tilts toward the manager camp, as would Sen. John Thune of South Dakota if he ran. Conversely, if Texas Gov. Rick Perry reverses his decision and joins the race, he would enter as a full-throated populist.”

That is one journalist’s way to define the crowd, but surely there are many other labels. Preferred is to examine more of the details about the candidates and their accomplishments, rather than classifying with labels that are themselves an invention.

Conservative, liberal, middle leaning left or right, they all don’t mean so much in absence of defining and descriptive facts. We need to learn about candidates as individuals that includes their alignment with political parties and their platforms.

1. What is wrong with a popularity contest for president?

There is much risk in continuing the current pattern of selecting and electing people for public office. We would not hire people for our businesses this way, nor would we expect to be hired ourselves for employment in this manner. Given the complexity of public needs and demand for specific knowledge and skill, I think we can do better.

There are different tracks for determining a better method for evaluating and selecting candidates for public office where I am using the Office of President as the example.

  1. Review History – I survey all of the Presidents to date to attempt to derive their qualifications for review and comparison.
  2. Develop a job model – Using a technique of our own invention, we model the job of president featuring primary outcomes, processes and activities, duties and responsibilities.
  3. Derive skill, knowledge, experience, proficiency requirements and standards from the job model.
  4. Identify and define other attributes for consideration.

Accomplishing these four things provide the basis for the guidance in this book. Dr. James Rodger, my co-author in other endeavors is my advisor and trusted subject matter expert in considering the impact of technology on the office of president and government.

In Chapter 1, I provided an audit trail of the Historical Review. In Chapter 2 I presented an analysis of official documentation that defines duties and responsibilities. In Chapter 3 I developed the Job Model. In Chapter 4 I presented a derivation the Skill, Knowledge, Experience, and Proficiency Characteristics. In Chapter 5 I packaged the information so that it is actionable for voters including all remaining attributes. Last, in Chapter 6 I applies the product to some who appear on present list of known candidates for President of the United States. You will see that the end product is interactive with you, the voter-readers, who can weight your own opinions and valuation to the process.

2. Sources of information

Without apology, I am neither an historian nor political scientist, though I have studied both subjects in the course of completing my college education. As experienced by many of our former presidents, this endeavor is one of self-instruction. My fellow voters evaluate presidential candidates based on information at hand: electronic and print media - television, radio, internet, newspapers, books, and pamphlets. Like you, time is limited. I only have so much time to write the book as I wanted to have it out for the 2012 election cycle.

George Washington relied upon James Madison and Alexander Hamilton as his speech writers. In his day, he didn’t always have to deliver the speech in public. Instead, he would send it to a Philadelphia newspaper to be distributed in print. If he had actually delivered some of these “speeches,” they may have lasted a long time as they were lengthy.

In constructing the pre-presidential resumes of each of 44 former Presidents, I am using two primary sources: 1) Wikipedia and 2) White House website featuring the U. S. Presidents. I augment this with other sources, though I am using information that is readily available to voters with some caveats about accuracy.

The first thing my wife said is “You know you can’t always trust Wikipedia for accuracy.” I know that, but there is a process for submitting information to the site for each president and there are footnotes. One can check facts which I am doing. Wiki is readily available as is the White House site. Therefore, for my purpose this is a baseline. As indicated later in a specific example, one can spend a lifetime studying the history of our presidents and their political parties. That is not the intent here.

3. Candidate age and health

Employment laws preclude discrimination based on age. Medical history is a controversial consideration. Yet, when voters evaluate presidential candidates, they have every right to consider the viability of a candidate with regard to age and health. Is the candidate alert and sufficiently healthy to be able to perform their duties for the duration of one and possibly two terms, four to eight years? To maximize return on voter investment in selecting and electing a president, they should expect a president to endure for two four-year terms in office for an eight-year span.

Ronald Reagan Junior wrote in his book, My Father at 100, that he believed his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease while still serving as President. “He was easy to love but hard to know. You couldn't help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight," said Ron Junior. That cannot be a good thing.

On the other hand, Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from the effects of polio and was crippled. He did everything that he could to appear strong and to prove that such a disability would not impair his capacity to serve as president. In the fourth term after fighting poverty and managing a world war, he grew tired and died in office.

It is significant to observe that FDR served four terms in office and that is a 16 year span. It gave cause for Congress to amend the Constitution, setting limits at two consecutive terms.
Would voters have been better off by selecting a different candidate in either case? Probably not; chance is a part of the process.

On Presidential Memory

“(President) McKinley had a remarkable memory for faces and names... Once, while waiting for ceremonies to begin at the dedication of a monument at the Antietam battlefield, he walked over to the edge of the platform and called down to an old veteran in blue, ‘Hello, comrade, I saw you in the crowd at Gettysburg last month when I spoke there, didn't I?’ Astonished, the veteran exclaimed, ‘Yes, but how did you recognize me?’ Queried about his memory afterward, McKinley shrugged it off: "Oh, I don't know, it just comes naturally.’"

Of historical curiosity, observe that at the time Founding Fathers wrote the age 35-year minimum age requirement it happened to be two years less than the average life expectancy of males in America. Therefore, one might conclude that the Founding Fathers didn’t want Presidential candidates who would last a long time. They would be serving at the end of their road so to speak. Then again, many of the Founding Fathers lived a respectable long time.

“The life expectancy of a colonial was short. As many as 50% of all women died in childbirth or from childbed disease. The infant mortality rate was also high. If a child could reach the age of eleven, they stood a better chance at survival. Individuals in their forties and fifties during the 17th century were considered "old." Statistics peering back to the 18th century indicate the average life expectancy was the age of 45!”

4. Historical Review

Beginning the review of Presidents of the United States in sequence, I will read their histories from multiple sources to capture certain information in the following categories:

Occupation – Vocation – Profession

These terms are used to get at the answer to what you do for a living. The meaning of these terms varies by nuance. Occupation, for instance is a general term. Vocation usually aims at something for which one is trained to do. Profession is generally a higher order occupation requiring advanced education and certification, though trade crafts may also require training and certification.

  • Occupation — the principal activity in your life that you do to earn money (Sales, community organizer, executive)
  • Vocation – something for which you are trained to do (plumber, shop keeper)
  • Profession — an occupation requiring special education or credentials (teacher, doctor, lawyer)
  • Skill — an ability that has been acquired by training; i.e. psychomotor skills, debating, planning, decision making, problem solving, sense making, forecasting, budgeting
  • Knowledge — cognition: the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning
  • Experience – accumulation of knowledge over time, usually a measure of “how much” expressed in time
  • What we want to know is what presidential candidates were doing in their lifetimes before running for elected office. This is an indication about how their experience and ability maps to the requirements of the job of President.
  • Proficiency – where possible some measurable indication about the level of competence in performing certain skills and abilities
  • Technology – is a category suggested by Dr. James Rodger such as command of computer technology, management methods and enabling abilities.
  • Personality — the complex of all the attributes—behavioral, temperamental, emotional and mental—that characterize a unique individual

Surveying the history of presidents to date, one might conclude that a number of them were considered to be “lady’s men” or men with many ladies. It seems that power corrupts ones morality.

For an in-depth account of the effect of women on our Founding Fathers read The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas Fleming. The relationship of Presidents with their mothers, spouses, and family members can provide telling insight into the values and personalities of presidential candidates. Unfortunately, much of the details about candidates aren’t public until the candidates themselves are public.

Now that the probability of women being elected president is increasing, it will be useful to know the relationship of women candidates to their mothers, fathers, and spouses and families where all things will become truly equal.

Furthermore, it is possible that candidates may emerge in the future that may be gay or lesbian, and any information that is pertinent to understanding individuals will eventually become public.

Even gentleman President Jimmy Carter had to confess he lusted.

“Because I'm just human and I'm tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.... This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.” Jimmy Carter, Playboy, November 1976.


Women have been absent from the high office in America. One reason is that women got a 144-year late start in being afforded the right to vote. Women suffrage in the United States did not produce women voting in elections until 1920 and that is after many other nations in the world had passed this barrier.

“Woman suffrage in the United States was achieved gradually, at state and local levels, during the 19th Century and early 20th Century, culminating in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote are not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Observe that the process of working an issue of national importance and clearly a right defined by the Constitution and Bill of Rights was subverted by states’ rights just as African American freedom was subverted by states’ rights. This raises an issue for candidates to address, what are their views about national needs and states’ rights in addressing needs of all citizens? The arduous process of working through states to address critical needs of the American population can be calamitous resulting in much suffering and causing long term consequences.

Women along with African Americans and other affected groups have borne the brunt of discrimination. American history presents instances in which Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants have borne the brunt of discrimination. Today, Muslims in America are a potential target of abuse. Voters may very well want to know presidential candidates’ views about how minorities in America should be treated. Furthermore, the subject includes immigration, legal and illegal. The subject may expand to addressing issues regarding homeland security.

As women have made progress in achieving greater parity in the workplace, voters might expect and perhaps desire a woman president. Some people believe that a woman’s point of view and temperament might define a new style of leadership.

Hillary Clinton was one of the women aspiring to the presidency as a Democrat and who lost the bid in the 2008 primaries to Barack Obama, America’s first President with African American descent.

Women have tried before, though without substantial mark until recently, sparked in part by Sarah Palin’s running as a vice presidential candidate to Senator John McCain as presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2008.

As a matter of record, women have run for president against the odds in the United States since 1872.

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