My wife got into an interesting conversation with an old school friend who wondered if Obama might be the least prepared president ever. It got me thinking about who the least prepared presidents have been in recent history. Three came to mind immediately: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford. None of them anticipated becoming president. Party leaders were generally pleased to see them shunted onto the all but abandoned siding of the vice presidency. Ford wasn’t even an elected vice president. Truman had been kept dreadfully ignorant of important matters crossing the president’s desk. None was without some experience of value. Roosevelt had the advantage of education, wealth, social connection and executive experience at the local, state, and federal levels, but people in power didn’t like or trust him. Truman had some executive experience as a county judge in Missouri, what today we would call a county executive, but was tainted with connections to corrupt political machines. Ford had been an able congressional leader, a likable sort of guy, and that’s about all that can be said.
The fact that none of them anticipated becoming president is what made them so unprepared. One day they were idling away their time in the nether world of the vice presidency. The next day they were president, and, in Truman’s case, president in the middle of a world war with a bomb he had never heard of waiting for his approval.
Is it possible to be prepared to be president of the United States?
I don’t think so. How can one be prepared for the most powerful office in the land, and yet an office in which every move is second guessed by the press, congress, courts and staff? Not to forget you and me with our vast stores of knowledge and wisdom. This most powerful office where most decisions important to the well being of the nation must first be legislated by congress, and then implemented through the filter of departments and agencies over which one has only limited control. And where any of that can be litigated for years until, at long last, the Supreme Court has its say. Show me a corporate CEO, general of the army, or captain of a ship who would put up with that. Oh, and let us not forget the hosts of lobbyists and other influence peddlers.
I don’t think it’s possible to be well prepared for the deluge of information, much of it secret, whose flow is monitored and directed by legions of staff all wanting to curry favor and position. I don’t think its possible to be well prepared to give up one’s private life to have it parsed down to the smallest iota on the one hand, and imprisoned behind Secret Service security on the other.
Presidents who were expected to have been well prepared turned out to be duds, while some who were spectacularly unprepared are remembered among the best.
As for our current president, he has the education, intelligence, integrity, and desire to do well. Now he has the experience to go with it, and a track record of accomplishments in the face of heated opposition that I find quite impressive. Was he unprepared before the election? Absolutely, and so are each of the candidates now running. Has he become prepared? I believe he has.