By what standards should we judge our next president? Maybe there are more choices than what I’m about to propose, but so far, I see two main options: Go high, or go low.
We know what low looks like
We’ve already seen how the low-expectation game plays out, and it’s not pretty. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and on Election Day, voters gave Donald Trump a pass because he’s “not a traditional politician.” The bar was extremely low. He got away with statements, language and actions that would have sunk any other candidate’s ship in a single news cycle.
Judging from what we saw in the campaign, and in the early days of the transition, it’s clear to me that continuing to hold Trump to a lower set of standards—and giving him time to climb the steepest learning curve of any President ever—will inevitably lead to negative outcomes for Americans, for our reputation in the world community, and for the well-being of our planet. Early moves set the tone and the standard, and they’re hard to undo.
The only case that I can make for low expectations is this: If Trump is allowed to be a part-time president, with weekends off [as if that could even happen] in his New York tower, maybe he’ll do less damage. And maybe, if he continues to appoint inexperienced political hacks—on the basis of their loyalty to Trump—to the big jobs, there will be such internecine warfare and incompetence in the cabinet that nothing will get done.
That scenario, though, is probably just wishful thinking. It’s already clear that Republican Congressional leadership (and I use that term extremely loosely) are licking their chops. They know that Trump is a know-nothing guy with no interest in ideas or learning, who is easily manipulated—often by the last person who whispers in his ear. They are gleefully preparing for four years of enacting the right-wing agenda that they’ve been pushing for decades. All they have to do is to flatter Trump, feed his need for adulation,, and hand him a pen. His lack of knowledge, experience and diplomacy make him a perfect patsy.
Letting him off the hook because he’s a newbie—granting him immunity while he gets on-the-job training—is a terrible idea. There’s just too much damage that can be done if we’re not holding his—and Congress’s feet to the fire.
The better strategy would be to hold him to the standards we have tried to apply to all previous presidents. While it’s very tempting to simply take to the streets to protest the man himself, I think we would do much better to make our protests specific to the policies he announces and the actions he takes, either on his own or at the urging [manipulation] of his advisers. Anyone who threatens to take away health insurance from 20 million people deserves a march on Washington. When potential puppet-master Paul Ryan introduces a bill to privatize Medicare, we must fight back.
But, in a subtler way, we should also hold the next president’s feet to the fire on some basic standards of behavior. So, in broader terms, I’d like to suggest the following 10 higher standards for presidential behavior. [In no particular order, and not intended to be comprehensive. Additional suggestions are welcome.]
1. A serious and engaged approach to the presidency. The willingness to put in the hours of study, serious [and even contentious] discussion, and overtime that it takes to make the highly impactful decisions that a president much make.
2. The willingness to appoint and listen to people who may not agree with you. The character to work with people based on their experience, knowledge and proven ability—rather than on their personal loyalty.
3. The self-awareness to know when you don’t have enough information to make an educated decision, and the willingness to seek counsel and help.
4. A commitment to governing for the common good. The understanding that being “the president for all Americans” is not just a slogan, it’s a mandate. The character to forego personal gain for the good of society as a whole, and to see your policies and actions in the context of how they will impact the greater society—now and in the future.
5. The temperament to slow down, to think before reflexively acting, and to wait until you have enough facts and context to make meaningful, carefully thought-out moves on the world stage or domestically.
6. The insight to see whose ideas and advice are the best for the country at-large, and to distinguish between advisors who have a broader vision for our country and those who are motivated by personal gain or ideology. The common sense to appreciate and reward ideas and policies that will improve life for as many people as possible.
7. The strength to say no—and to have people say “no” to you as well. The core strength to accept legitimate criticism from people close to you, from others in government, and from the press.
8. The humility to change course when a decision turns out to be detrimental to the country at-large, or to individuals. A sense of personal and professional accountability for actions and words, and the ability to take responsibility for mistakes.
9. A commitment to transparency and communication. The courage to face difficult questions from the press, and the patience to answer them thoughtfully. The willingness to share information about yourself—as other presidents have—with the people to whom you are accountable.
10. The grace to be a unifier and healer, through words and actions.
Gee, this sounds a lot like the “Serenity Prayer,” doesn’t it? The difference is, of course, that I don’t actually pray, and I’m not asking a deity to grant us these characteristics and behaviors in our next president. In fact, I recently saw a Facebook meme in which the writer parodied the Serenity Prayer by saying, “I’m no longer accepting the things I can’t change; I’m changing the things I can’t accept.”
I’m calling for Americans–and world leaders–to demand better from Trump that what we saw in the campaign. [I really don’t think he’s got it in him. We’ve seen “the real” Donald Trump. But crazy things can happen.] In any case, we have to make it clear that the behaviors and words that some people excused during the campaign are totally unacceptable for a President.
My list of presidential standards also sounds, to me, a lot like what we’ve experienced during the past eight years, as Barack Obama has served America with a level of intelligence and classiness that we’ve come to think of as the norm. Let’s do our best to hold the next president to those same standards of behavior. And cry foul—loudly and unashamedly– when he doesn’t.