the choice 2004 [home]
homeleadershipgeorge w. bushjohn f. kerrydiscussion

what makes a good president?

Presidential historians and other experts on the U.S. presidency all cite certain leadership qualities that they conclude make for success or failure in the Oval Office. Whether you are still undecided, or already know your vote on November 4th, the analyses and checklists offered below by five experts on the presidency are useful pointers on what voters ought to be looking for in a presidential candidate.

The Qualities That Bear on Presidential Performance by Fred I. Greenstein
In considering the qualities of effective and ineffective U.S. presidents, presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein focuses on the twelve modern presidents from FDR to George W. Bush and uses six criteria for his analysis: Public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. And, there is one attribute on his list to which he gives special emphasis, noting that without it, "...all else may turn to ashes." Greenstein is author or editor of eight books on the U.S. presidency and is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Princeton University.
'Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton' by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has been writing about the American presidency for decades. His most recent book is War and the American Presidency (2004). Here, in an assessment of the qualities necessary for success in the White House, he draws on a 1996 ranking of presidents that was done by leading historians and close observers of presidential leadership. Each president was ranked in one of five categories: "Great," "Near Great," "Average," "Below Average," or "Failure." Schlesinger is the author of books on the administrations of Jackson, FDR, Kennedy and Nixon and he served as special assistant to President Kennedy.
Job Specs for the Oval Office by Hedley Donovan
Hedley Donovan, editor in chief of Time magazine for 15 years, met or studied all the presidents of his time, from FDR to Jimmy Carter, and spent a year in the White House as Carter's senior adviser. In this 1982 Time article, Donovan proposes no less than 31 attributes that are needed for good and effective presidential leadership. He also looks at what a presidential candidate's resume does and doesn't predict.
Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents by Robert  Dallek
Presidential historian Robert Dallek maintains there are five categories by which to measure an effective president. While noting that these categories "are not intended to be the last ... word on how to succeed in the White House," he nevertheless points out that it is striking how each of these elements "has been present and absent in the leadership of the most and least effective chiefs." Robert Dallek is professor of history at Boston University and author of books on Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevent John F. Kennedy.
What Makes A Great President by Karl Rove
Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief political strategist since 1994, is a student of presidential history, in particular, the overlooked presidency of William McKinley whom Rove believes came close to being a great president. In this 2002 lecture at the University of Utah, Rove offers a short list of "what distinguishes the successful president from the unsuccessful president." Among these characteristics are: clarity of vision and direction, emotional intelligence and self-confidence, respect for public opinion but not too responsive to polls, a party leader, being ready to act and being comfortable in deciding.
Join the Discussion
What are your thoughts on these checklists of qualities that experts say are needed in the Oval Office? Has it influenced your thinking on America's choice on November 2nd?

home · introduction · george w. bush · john f. kerry · what makes a good president?
interviews · links · join the discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
teacher's guide · plan a campus event · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted oct. 12, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
some photos copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation