The office of president of the United States has rightly been called one of the toughest jobs in the world. Most would argue that steering the combined foreign and domestic policy apparatus of the world’s only superpower and the globe’s largest economy seems too big of a job for any one person. But after decades of consolidation of executive authority at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that is indeed the job description. And it is why voters should consider a candidate’s basic qualifications and suitability for office as the most important aspect of a run for the White House.
As this election cycle has unfolded, however, a uniquely strange notion has taken hold: that, in these hardest of times, the person best equipped to steer the government should be someone who has no experience administering even a small corner of it, and who likely has nothing but contempt for most of its basic functions.
That is the implicit — or, more often, explicit — proposition made by several leading candidates. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Carly Fiorina would be remarkable historic outliers to win the White House, not only because they’ve never held elected office; they have never even held senior positions in either the government or the military. No president has ever been sworn in without such experience. And yet, those three candidates have the combined support of nearly half of the GOP primary electorate in the most recent polls.
Call it the mirage of the gifted amateur, but it is a rather brazen assertion that one’s first job in public service should be the toughest. Perhaps because the electorate has expressed loud dissatisfaction with the ranks of the incumbent political class, Carson, Trump, and Fiorina haven’t exactly surrounded themselves with seasoned advisors. It’s a naive mistake in a world that looks increasingly dangerous.
The current occupant of the Oval Office provides a cautionary example. Of the many critiques of the Obama administration, perhaps the most lasting is that as a freshman senator only halfway through his first six-year term, he lacked a depth and breadth of experience needed to adroitly manage the many and nuanced affairs of state. In his final State of the Union address last week, Obama lamented his inability to build more bipartisanship while in office; but such notions were naive from the get-go. If he had had more experience whipping votes in Congress, managing diplomatic crises overseas, or leading military forces into action, it is easy to imagine that he never would have made such promises in the first place. Although he faced some of the most truculent and partisan opposition in history, more experience might have helped him find a way forward, and the history of the past seven years might have been quite different.
Nothing can fully prepare a person to hold the highest office in the land — to shoulder the weight of carrying the nuclear launch codes, to be privy to the government’s most closely-guarded secrets, to make decisions that could mean the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. The president must be fluent in the language and practice of government, and seasoned in diplomacy, compromise, and failure. Successfully running the US government requires courage and conviction, certainly. But it also demands a level of competence that seems in short supply as Fiorina, Carson, and Trump head into the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.