The Next President: Look Past the Rhetoric

When it comes to electing a President, we should be thinking about leadership. We've been fooled too often by rhetoric

Americans are in the heart of that once-every-four-years phenomenon where the Democrats and Republicans try to shape the image of their respective candidates with never-ending political rhetoric, images, videos, and music. All this hoopla is aimed at getting their candidate elected President. But it doesn't tell us what we really need to know.

Honestly speaking, voters should ignore all this political image-shaping. Instead, they should try to determine the type of leader John McCain or Barack Obama would be in the world's most powerful leadership position.

We've been fooled before by political rhetoric. Remember the "compassionate conservatism" campaign of President George W. Bush in 2000? He proved to be neither compassionate nor truly conservative, as evidenced by his profligate spending and the deficit he has run up. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran on a health-care platform of "managed competition" that turned out a plan that was anything but competitive and almost sank his Presidency. Going farther back in history, Lyndon Johnson envisioned in 1964 a Great Society and instead left us mired in Vietnam. In 1968, Richard Nixon promised to "win the peace in Vietnam," and wound up extending the war until 1974.

Bottom line: Don't judge politicians on their promises. Judge them on their leadership.

How capable a leader would John McCain or Barack Obama be as President? Since neither one has ever led (BusinessWeek, 8/26/08) a large, complex organization, we need to examine their backgrounds and their campaign organizations in order to gain crucial insights into this question.

A Few Similarities

The good news is that both men are authentic leaders. They have openly shared their life stories with the American people. Both have been tested: McCain by his ordeal as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam and Obama by the absence of his father and confusion over his racial identity as a teenager. With the notable exception of McCain's marital infidelity to his first wife, both candidates operate from a clear set of principles and seem to have lived lives of integrity.

But that's where the similarities end.

All his life John McCain has been a solo performer: as a fighter pilot, a prisoner of war, a congressional aide, congressman, and senator. In the U.S. Senate he has frequently stood against the Republican Party on issues like campaign financing and sided with Democrats like Senators Edward Kennedy and Russell Feingold. His independence has earned him the image of a maverick.

Since announcing his candidacy for President this time around, McCain's campaign has been anything but well organized. His organization has experienced high turnover, frequent resignations, terminations, and regular shifts in focus. As a candidate, McCain has often agreed on strategy and positions with his staff, only to abandon them the next day. Just recently his campaign gained some clarity with the addition of members from the George W. Bush/Karl Rove campaign team. In the past few weeks, McCain's new advisers have successfully shifted McCain's focus to attacks on his opponent and to national security issues, as his statements have become clearer and more concise.

Through all this, McCain has operated more like an entrepreneur than an executive: outspoken, direct, and creative, but often leaving a trail of messes that need to be cleaned up after him. Projecting what McCain would be like in the White House, one could probably expect a few clear messages emanating from the President. However, these would likely be accompanied by lots of turnover and instability in his cabinet and White House staff.

In contrast, Barack Obama got his early training as a community organizer. He has translated that experience into a massive field team that reflects a bottoms-up (BusinessWeek, 8/21/08), empowered organization. His key central staff members have been with him since the beginning of his campaign, as his team has experienced virtually no turnover, dissension, or organizational problems. Obama himself set the standard of operation (BusinessWeek, 8/23/08) at the outset, telling his people he wouldn't tolerate dissension and internal squabbles—earning him the label: "No Drama Obama."

A Google-Like Team

As his candidacy has progressed, he has expanded his central team and successfully married it to his field organization. His organization resembles a growing corporate structure like Google (GOOG) or Intel (INTC): a strong central core linked to a creative group of individuals building off the Internet.

Projecting this forward into the White House, one would likely expect a disciplined staff around Obama, integrated with empowered people throughout the government carrying out multiple initiatives. Taking on a broad set of initiatives, Obama's messages would be more nuanced and more complex than McCain's. Whereas McCain is a pragmatist, Obama is a visionary.

How would each of these men respond to the pressure of surprise events like September 11 or Hurricane Katrina? McCain would probably rely more on his own instincts than the advice of his team and would be decisive and possibly impulsive. In contrast, Obama would be likely to gather a group of experts around him, listen carefully to their advice, integrate it into his own thinking, and make decisions that were more nuanced.

Comparing these candidates to previous Presidents, I envision that McCain would operate more like Harry Truman, while Obama would function more in the style of John F. Kennedy.

In deciding their choice for the next President, voters should look past the rhetoric and focus on what kind of leader our country needs at this crucial time in our history.

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