What Kind of President Do Americans Want? Smart or Tough?

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

When George W. Bush was voted into office the second time around, I read a piece that suggested Americans care more about their leader’s brawn than brains — or rather, we prefer a president who appeals to our lizard brains instead of one that make us reach for the dictionary. And I remember thinking, ‘Really? Can that possibly be true?’

Intelligence had so long been engrained in me as being the most vital trait that I could hardly imagine any other qualification being more desirable for our leadership. But since that time, I’ve come to see that lab technicians aren’t always the best suited for jobs outside the lab. In other words, brilliance may produce better results in a controlled setting, but human civilization is far from that. Leadership is about strength and intelligence and perhaps most importantly the ability to make those under and alongside you willing to push toward a common goal.

However, leadership is one thing. Political leadership is a whole other. That’s where it gets a bit more complicated. It stops being about what makes a leader good, and starts being about what makes a leader electable. The equation changes. Charisma, money, race, religion, background, jaw line — these things all come into play suddenly.

Who we vote for isn’t necessarily the individual with the best understanding of the economy, the best understanding of international conflicts, the best historical or legal expertise — hell, I’m fairly certain there’s a governor somewhere who specialized in, say, wood carving, and is just damn charming. Now, I’ve made room in my definitions to allow that the best leader requires more than a thorough education and a strong analytical mind. People skills are important, and given that mankind is driven to civilized governance in large part by fear of external threats (real and otherwise), strength must be clear and apparent in an effective leader. Which is where we catch up to present day, and a couple of big questions become relevant.