Even Roosevelt had a hard time.

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For Presidents, Congress Is Just the First Hurdle

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Why shouldn’t Republican party actors choose Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson as their nominee for president? That's simple: They have the wrong talents for the job.

You don't need someone who is correct on policy as you see it (that’s easy to find). You want someone who is a master politician -- someone who has a particular skill set to succeed at the job. 

My View colleague Megan McArdle makes good points about Carly Fiorina and the “job of president”:

It is not like being the head of a nonprofit or a certified Very Smart Person in academia or in the media. It is also not like running a business, unless your business has a 535-person board that must approve or veto every major decision the CEO makes, as well as voting him or her the money to spend on it. The closest job is either head of another government (most of whom are not legally eligible to run for U.S. president) or governor (few of whom have any foreign policy experience).

Ezra Klein put it this way:

There's a widespread fantasy that some hard-charging CEO could take control of the America government and make it run like a business. But it's mere fantasy: the US government can't run like a business because it isn't structured like a business, it doesn't have the goals of a business, and it doesn't have the tools of a business. It's possible for a brilliant CEO to be a terrible president, and vice versa.

Congress is only the beginning of the president's challenges. There are executive-branch departments and agencies. State and local governments. The courts. Foreign nations. Political parties and interest groups. Each have their own constituents and internal tensions.

They will all have demands on the president, and he or she will have requests of them. Trump is correct to say that negotiation is an important presidential skill, but political bargaining is different from business bargaining, because there’s no fixed bottom line. Half the battle in political deal-making is having the political experience and ability to figure out what the other players really want.

Moreover, presidents have to figure out what their own political needs are, and that's more complicated than seeking profits. Which groups does the president require enthusiastic support from? Which groups only have to tolerate the president? What actions would violate his representative relationship with constituents; which would strengthen it?

Presidency scholar Richard Neustadt talked about seeking “clues.” As he put it, “What [the president] sees in terms of power gives him clues to help him search beneath the surfaces of issues.” He means that by constantly looking at everything in terms of his own political situation – which requires understanding the political situation of everyone he deals with – the president will be in good position to produce good results for the nation.

Governors, as McArdle suggests, have opportunities to learn these skills; so do all politicians in elective office. They learn to cultivate their representative relationships with their constituencies. Members of Congress (especially senators) negotiate with executive-branch departments and agencies, and learn the complex politics of the federal bureaucracy. In many cases, legislating requires negotiations with state governments, and certainly with parties and interest groups.

Of course, plenty of people without previous political experience seek and win office and turn out to be good at it. But being president is a harder job than what governors, senators and other politicians do. As Neustadt said, it's "no place for amateurs" -- and putting one there would be risky for any political party.

Even those who are good at presidenting make plenty of blunders. Franklin Roosevelt, better than anyone else at the job in the last century, had his share of mistakes. Pure intentions don’t help, and mastery of the policy part, while useful, has limited application. If a president gets the politics right, the rest will follow.

  1. Sure, business deals aren’t necessarily all reduced to dollars and cents and nothing else, but I'd guess that a negotiating partner cares about money mostly. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net