How to Pick a President

The reasons for the electoral triumphs of Barack Obama are ancient history by now. A country exhausted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presented with a superannuated and uninspiring Republican candidate, infected by white liberal guilt, and subjected to a nonstop media blitz damning and ridiculing everything the previous administration had done while hyping Obama to the heavens and suppressing every unsavory facet of his biography -- this was a country ripe for change.  And, presumably, hope.

But the wave of euphoria that swept the nation when Obama appeared on the scene is a more complex phenomenon. It was a species of enchantment, a collective fantasy that held a substantial portion of the American people in its pathological grip. Obama was young, vibrant, eloquent and exotic. He was the quintessence of “cool.” His very name was a multicultural freebie. And of course, he was black, thereby promising in virtue of skin tone to redeem the nation of its antebellum past. (That Obama was only half-black and completely foreign to the African-American heritage did not register.) Moreover, Obama was the Utopian candidate who pledged to heal a sick and broken planet, to make peace with dedicated enemies, to eradicate poverty, to compel the supposedly rising oceans to recede, and to bring the Golden Age out of the realm of myth into the real world at last. The anointed one had arrived. As a somewhat chastened Barbara Walters later confessed, “We thought he was going to be…the next messiah.”

We know today that his resonating promises -- and they were legion -- did not come to pass, with the single exception of his commitment to transform America. Why the most successful country in the world needed to be transformed was not immediately obvious, except to a generation that had been “educated” to believe America was the source of all the world’s ills, to a hydra-headed grievance industry that refused to take responsibility for its own lack of achievement or success, and to an obtuse and besotted media conglomerate -- “knucklehead row,” to adopt Andrew Klavan’s apt description of New York Times columnists. And America has indeed been transformed, from a powerful, feared, wealthy and confident nation into a zymotic disaster zone, tearing itself apart from within, floundering in unpayable debt, and pursuing a ruinous foreign policy that has left critical regions of the globe in a state of incarnadine havoc and the country itself vulnerable to numerous security threats. It has been transformed into a country that, according to a recent Politico poll, almost two thirds of Americans feel “has lost control of its major challenges.”

The crucial issue now, following the GOP wave in the midterm elections, is the 2016 presidential election. Two years is not a long time in the domain of electoral calculation, and potential candidates from both parties are beginning to position themselves at the starting pole. This seems like an opportune moment for a foreign observer familiar with, and fascinated by, American history, one who has followed the American political scene closely for many years and who has no personal stake in electoral outcomes, to offer a few suggestions on the topic of determining preferences -- that is, on how to pick a president.

What I have to say here is starkly obvious. But some things need to be said over and over, no matter how self-evident or how difficult of fulfillment. To begin with, people should not vote their cultural prejudices or rely on beliefs that are plainly irrelevant -- or should be -- to the onerous demands of presidential office. Race has no bearing on whether a person is fit for the job, as should be painfully clear by now. White or black has nothing to do with honesty or competence. Similarly, gender says absolutely nothing about a person’s ability to handle the most important and exacting political function the world has to offer. Male or female has nothing to do with honesty or competence. Gay or straight, able-bodied or handicapped, are also, from this perspective, superficial attributes, negligible quantities. Charm can be deceptive, and glib rhetorical gifts are often a smokescreen for hollowness, ignorance or deceit. None of these elements should operate as criteria in rendering a decision.