By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps
Happy birthday George and happy birthday Abe. While we're at it, happy birthday to the two other presidents born in February, William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan.
We owe all four a debt of gratitude. Being president has to be one of the toughest jobs ever created. The pressure is enormous and the consequences of their actions felt around the world.
But the fact is that presidents are neither drafted nor forced to take the position. They work hard and long for the honor. Only 44 people have ever held the office.
Presidents must be held to a very high standard, and that is why we have a lengthy and arduous selection process. Just look ahead to 2016. Even though the election is almost two years down the road, the campaigns are underway. Candidates and parties are already publicly and privately jockeying for position.
Such a long run-up almost certainly leads to voter fatigue. But there is an advantage to these lengthy campaigns: it allows the public to study and think carefully about the characteristics and agenda we want from our next leader. And in a time when the federal government has ground to a halt, when politicians and the public are badly divided on many major policy issues, leadership has seldom been at a greater premium.
Historians have studied what makes a great president, a body of work that has been supplemented by public opinion polls. While there is no consensus on the issue, the following list includes several of the commonly identified qualities.
- A compelling vision for the nation and the world.
- The skills to achieve that vision by communicating, listening, and cooperating.
- A limited but impactful agenda.
- The courage to do the right thing even if unpopular.
- A respect for history (understanding the long-term consequences of decisions).
- Honesty and integrity.
All of these components are important. But the foundation for presidential success is the compelling vision. And that vision is not created in a vacuum. It must be solidly based on the needs of the people. And the polls in this area are unanimous: the number one priority is strengthening our economy.
America needs a president who has a vision and workable plan to restore our nation's economic vitality. This plan cannot be limited to the short term. This plan cannot be focused on any one generation. This plan cannot be focused on any one class. This plan cannot be focused on any one strategy. Employment, a living wage, tax reform, infrastructure, education, economic mobility, fairness, and ample rewards for innovation, hard work and good work all have to be part of the vision.
America has the right to expect great leaders. We have had great leaders in the past. Last year, journalist and statistician Nate Silver created a composite list of previous presidential rankings. Topping the list were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
Very few would argue about the extraordinary quality of service they gave to their country.
But great leaders are not limited to the distant past. We have had great leaders in the modern era.
While it is too early to accurately judge our most recent presidents, consider Truman (with his vision of a reconstructed world following the devastation of World War II), Eisenhower (with his vision of a safe and prosperous America), Kennedy (with his vision of an egalitarian world led by a vigorous America), Johnson (with his vision of a nation where poverty had been eradicated) and Reagan (with his vision of a small but effective government).
No one person can have all the attributes we want in a leader. But we can work hard to ensure that the presidential candidates in 2016 have those we really need. Let's use the upcoming months to not only listen to the candidates and their messages, but also to communicate with them about what we the people value, what we the people believe most important, what we the people will vote for and support.
Budig is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, University of Kansas and of Major League Baseball's American League. Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.