Here's a thought: What if we approached presidential campaigns the way a large corporation approaches its search for a new chief executive? The purpose of the campaign would be to test for the skills and attributes actually required for the job.
Companies such as McDonald's and Target do this even at the junior levels. Applicants are asked questions like "Tell us about a conflict at work you helped resolve" and "What's the biggest obstacle you overcame?" The qualities employers are seeking are the same ones voters should be looking for in presidential candidates: initiative, experience, creativity and problem solving.
Alas, when candidates are asked questions that might shed some light on these abilities, they run or dodge. They're trained not to answer hypothetical questions and to tell only heroic tales about their past. Well, nuts. We've got to do something with all of these television hours, rallies and conversations with the neighbors, so consider these four qualities to guide the way we evaluate candidates for the job:
Political skill: Campaigns give us a good idea of a candidate's priorities, but can they read the political landscape they'll face when they get to office? Are they honest enough to win voters' trust but ruthless enough cut a deal with their enemies when necessary? Are they comfortable with the schmoozing, backslapping and ego-massaging that comes with the job?
Management ability: Is the candidate focused enough to follow an overarching vision, but nimble enough to tweak that vision when real-world events intervene? Can they admit mistakes and learn from them? Can they sift through complex ideas? Can they recognize baloney when it comes from their staff or supporters? Do they know how to hire a good team?
Persuasiveness: Do they know how to deliver a good speech? Do they know when to stay quiet? Do they know how to read public opinion? Is it possible for a president to short circuit Congress by taking an issue directly to the people?
Temperament: Has the candidate ever faced a true crisis? Do they have the equanimity to handle the erratic and unpredictable pressures of the office? How are they with uncertainty?
You'll notice a word that is missing here: leadership. We can all agree that a president should be a leader, but what does that mean? Gen. George Patton or Mahatma Gandhi? It depends on the circumstance.
The word leadership in presidential politics only distracts or obscures. What a president's critics really mean when they say he "isn't leading" is that he hasn't announced that he is supporting their plan.
Challengers vow to show leadership, but that amounts to little more than saying they'll magically pass the vast programs they're promising. They don't want anyone to ask the "how" question. They want you to assume that a leader can get anything done.
Rather than testing for leadership, we should recognize that leadership is actually the sum of these four attributes — and probably a few more. These attributes, unlike the vaporous "leadership" mantle, are more measurable qualities. We shouldn't let politicians get away with asserting they have this magical ability when we can bore down a little deeper to see whether they have these necessary and underlying traits.
I am not claiming that by looking at things this way we can produce a mathematical formula for candidates. There is no Myers-Briggs test for successful presidents. But unlike the mindless speculation over who will get the nod to be a candidate's running mate, at least thinking about these is not completely useless. And searching for the answers should help bring the candidates into somewhat clearer focus.
John Dickerson is author of "On Her Trail."
© 2012 Slate