Let’s face it. While the three leading presidential candidates are all talented, they all lack an essential qualification for the presidency – executive experience. Barack Obama may be a silver-tongued orator, but his background as an academic, a community organizer, and a lawyer did not hone much managerial expertise. Hillary Clinton may be a passionate activist, but – despite her famous 3 A.M. commercial -- her background as an academic, a First Lady, and a lawyer did not give her many tough decisions to make, under pressure, with different factions in her office advancing opposing ideas. And Senator John McCain may have spent years in the United States Military, one of the world’s best training grounds for management, but he started as a flyboy and when he returned was at the Naval War College then at the Senate as military liaison. In fact, all three would have to say that their Senate offices were the most complex bureaucracies they even ran – which is not saying much. Clearly, being governor is better training for the presidency which is, after all in the executive branch.
This shared shortcoming is important. As an academic I know what of I speak. Having been minimally managed and having done minimal managing, I am well aware of the skill set I lack. I don’t know about creating a vision for an organization, about seeing how it is implemented in levels below me, about how to reconcile my vision and views with those of others, or with my institution’s organizational culture. I happily avoid all the interpersonal baggage that comes from all these interpersonal dynamics, but I recognize that this is not my realm.
This problem is intensified because the modern presidency has grown too big for one person. In each election, Americans are actually choosing between two opposing teams. In an age of weakened parties, the teams have a Republican or Democratic flavor, but are most affected by the leader at the top. Like a privately held corporation, the modern presidency ostensibly reflects the boss’s desires, but the hundreds of key appointees in the executive branch, managing thousands of government workers, enjoy wide discretion. Franklin D. Roosevelt had less than a hundred White House staffers, only 71 presidential appointees in 1933, and 50 different agencies reporting directly to him; half a century later, Ronald Reagan had over 350 White House staffers, 600 presidential appointees, 1700 employees in the Executive Office of the President, and approximately two million governmental employees overall.
Of course, in this game of presidential campaigning, biography is not destiny. Former senator John F. Kennedy figured out how to lead, and former governor George W. Bush would get a “needs improvement” on his management report card if presidents underwent the same kind of supervisory process many corporate managers endure. Moreover, it is hard for any of the three leading candidates to claim more substantive executive experience than the other. Still, given the complexity of the presidency, the federal bureaucracy, and the challenges America currently faces, the combined managerial inexperience of Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama is unnerving.