THIS YEAR'S PRESIDENTIAL QUALITY

~ Posted by Robert Butler, November 5th 2012

Who has the qualities to be the best president? Over the last fortnight, we have published six articles debating who was America's best president and invited readers to join our online poll. At the moment, one name stands out in front: Abraham Lincoln leads with 33%, Franklin D. Roosevelt follows in second with 19%, Bill Clinton in third with 15%, George Washington in fourth with 9%, Theodore Roosevelt in fifth with 7% and Thomas Jefferson comes last with 6%. Each of the writers for Intelligent Life highlighted qualities in their choices that made them successful presidents. It's not easy to say which of these qualities is most recognisable in the two candidates standing for election tomorrow. 

If George Washington is your idea of the best president, then neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney displays the humility which Emily Bobrow said "ensured the institution was built to last". 

If Thomas Jefferson is your idea, then neither quite fits David Rennie's description of America's "first politician-president: partisan, ruthless, passionate". In many areas, Obama hasn't been partisan or ruthless enough and Romney has shown how hard it is for a flip-flopper to be convincingly passionate. 

If you were to favour Theodore Roosevelt’s "can-do spirit", which Christopher Lockwood says turned the presidency into "the vital force it is today in America and in the world", then this isn't the same "can do" that Obama invoked in 2008 with "yes we can" (which, in a number of cases, simply turned out to be "no we can't"). Nor could it be a "can-do" philosophy that excludes—as Romney revealed privately—47% of the population.

Neither candidate has the gift of empathy ("affable, inclusive and persuasive") that Anne McElvoy says characterises Clinton's talent. One is detached and professorial off-stage; the other speaks with the lightweight intensity of a gameshow host.

Certainly neither can claim to have shared the circumstances that Jesse Norman describes Abraham Lincoln facing: the barest minimum of formal education and failure as a small businessman. 

The one presidential quality that both candidates seem to have in common is the one that David Thomson ascribes to FDR: "a mass of contradictions". As The Economist says this week: "Mr Obama came into office promising to end 'our chronic avoidance of tough decisions'...and then retreated fast." Meanwhile, "Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don't believe most of what he says". Perhaps it's this similarity between the two of them that results in polls saying there is a 1% margin. 

America decides on its next president tomorrow; readers of Intelligent Life have four weeks more to decide on its greatest one. If you are able to, do vote in both.

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life