June 2004

Hiring a President

In my professional career I've participated in about 1000 hiring decisions--some hires, more no-hires. But not once in those 1000 decisions did we ask the candidates to create 30-second ads attacking their rivals, nor did we ask them to sit down and debate each other. Instead we evaluated their skills for the job at hand, looked at their record of accomplishment at similar jobs, and got expert reports from people they have worked with first-hand, or from leading experts in their fields. I wish our country would take that approach in choosing a president to "hire" -- if it did, I think the results would go something like this ...

Skills for the Job

The president has two official job functions (according to the constitution): chief executive of the federal government and commander in chief of the armed forces. In addition, the president plays an informal leadership role for the country and the world. This third function is perhaps the most important, so let's consider it in more detail.

There are many books on leadership; one I like is Warren Bennis' On Becoming a Leader. Bennis cites four competencies that a leader must have:

  1. "Engage others by creating shared meaning"
  2. "Have a distinctive voice"
  3. "Integrity"
  4. "The one competence that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders -- the key competence -- is adaptive capacity"

For (1) and (2), you can make up your own mind; to get this far, both candidates have shown an ability to connect with their supporters.

For (3), I believe both candidates are motivated by public service, have a deep desire to do the right thing, and are driven by ethical and religous convictions. Kerry is a long-time regular church-goer. Bush is not, but makes a point of his born-again conversion. (I should note that other critics are less charitable; many Democrats and Republicans believe that the other party's candidate lacks integrity, and many Greens and Libertarians think they're both bums.)

The big difference between the two candidates, frankly, is that Kerry is trying to view the world as it is, and to choose the best action based on reality. Bush's campaign is centered around denying reality and choosing actions despite reality.

In other words, Bush does poorly on the integrity test because he deliberately misleads the American people, and he scores lower on adaptive capacity than anyone I've ever witnessed. You might think that each candidate would be clamoring to show how adaptive he is. In fact, the opposite is true -- Bush highlights his "resolve", while Kerry combats charges that he "waffles". It was only in the first debate that Kerry raised the obvious point that "you can be certain and be wrong." Bush, it seems, prefers to be certain, because he can not believe he could be wrong. This is the opposite of adaptive capacity, and it is a dangerous thing to have in a leader at any level, but especially in the president.

A 10/17/04 NY Times article by Ron Suskind quotes Republican policy advisor Bruce Bartlett says that Bush "dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts" because "He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence." In a CNN interview, Bush supporter Pat Robertson described his meeting with Bush on the eve of the Iraq war: "I warned him about the war. I had deep misgivings about this war, deep misgivings. And I was trying to say, `Mr. President, you had better prepare the American people for casualties.'" Robertson said that Bush told him "Oh no, we're not going to have any casualties." Similarly (according to the Suskind article), Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) warned Bush about growing problems of winning the peace a few months before the war, but Bush was unconcerned. Biden finally said "How can you be so sure when you don't know the facts?" and Bush replied "My instincts." Suskind describes a White House senior advisor explaining all this by pointing out that relying on facts and an analysis of the world is for the "reality-based community", which the president has gone beyond. He is part of a new reality-creating community: if he doesn't like the facts, he can ignore them, change them, or create a new reality. This is an astonishing way to do politics, but a disasterous approach to leading the world.

I have to say that I started out with higher hopes for Bush's adaptive capacity. One of his first major decisions was on stem cell research. I initially applauded his decision, which seemed like a reasonable compromise. Over time, however, we learned from Christopher Reeve, Ron and Nancy Reagan, and a majority of scientists that it was in fact a highly-restrictive decision. And it was one of the last times we saw a compromise from Bush. Not that compromises are always the best solution of course, but the problem with Bush is that he doesn't consider the facts long enough to arrive at a good solution.

Bush has enjoyed good success with his strategy of ignoring reality -- at least with his supporters. On a wide variety of issues, his supporters hold incorrect views, either because they believe what Bush has told them, or because they would have to give up their support for Bush if they didn't believe them. A report by the Program on International Policy at the Univ. of Maryland polled Bush and Kerry supporters on the following issues; percentage of support for each statement is shown for Bush and Kerry supporters:

72%26%Iraq had WMD before the warFalse (Duelfer report)
75%30%Iraq provided substantial support to al Qaeda pre-9/11False (9/11 commission)
63%15%Clear evidence for Iraq WMD was foundFalse (no evidence)
58%92%War would have been wrong if Iraq had no WMD, was not supporting al QaedaMatter of opinion
61%17%Bush would not have gone to war under those circumstancesMatter of opinion; probably false
31%74%Majority of world opposes US war in Iraq38 of 38 countries oppose the war (Gallup poll)
9%69%Majority of world favors Kerry victory30 of 35 countries favor Kerry (GlobeScan/PIPA poll)
51%21%Islamic world favors US-led efforts to fight terrorism11 of 13 countries oppose US efforts (people-press.org)

This shows that Bush supporters are extremely ill-informed, or that Bush has successfully mislead them on these issues.

The PIPA study goes on to see how accurately supporters view their candidate on policy issues. Here we show the percentage of Bush or Kerry supporters who think their candidate holds each viewpoint:

69%77%Comprehensive Test Ban TreatyBush no; Kerry yes
72%79%Treaty banning land minesBush no; Kerry yes
51%74%Kyoto treaty on climateBush no; Kerry yes
53%65%US in Intenational Criminal CourtBush no; Kerry yes
74%81%Favor labor and environmental standards in tradeBush no; Kerry yes

In each case, Bush supporters tend to agree with Kerry's viewpoint (numbers not shown here) but falsely believe that Bush agrees with them. In each case Kerry supporters are accurate in assessing Kerry.

Bush is in a difficult position. If he admits his mistakes, he stands no chance of re-election. His only hope is to deny reality and hope his supporters don't notice. So far his strategy has kept the race very close, although he still has less than a 50% approval rating.

But the strategy of ignoring reality doesn't make reality go away. On 10/26/04 we see reports from the Iraqi interim government that "major neglect" by the US military has led to the assassination of 49 Iraqi army recruits. Earlier, on 10/25/04, we saw that 380 tons of high explosives are missing, again due to neglect.

Expert Reports

In hiring an employee, it is often hard to get anyone to go on the record with an honest appraisal. There is no such problem in finding endorsements for president. Here is one site that claims to archive all such endorsements. Currently they are running in favor of Kerry, including one from the Iowa City Press-Citizen that takes a similar line to this piece: "If a CEO took his company from record revenues to record debts, then bogged down his employees in a messy, costly project with no easy way out, shareholders would have no choice but to fire him. Given that, America's shareholders -- its voters -- need to hire a new CEO on Nov. 2." Endorsements of Bush stress the idea that it is risky to change leadership at a dangerous time, and that Bush has shown single-minded resolve.

The most surprising endorsement to me was the American Conservative magazine's endorsement of Kerry. It is old news when left-wing extremists claim that Bush is a far-right radical, but here one of the leading Conservative magazines is saying that Kerry is closer to traditional conservative ideals than Bush is, stating that "Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations." and that "few have paid attention to how much the Bush presidency has degraded the image of the United States in the world. Of course there has always been anti-Americanism. ... But Bush has somehow managed to take all these sentiments and turbo-charge them. ... The poll numbers are shocking. In countries like Norway, Germany, France, and Spain, Bush is liked by about seven percent of the populace. In Egypt, recipient of huge piles of American aid in the past two decades, some 98 percent have an unfavorable view of the United States. It's the same throughout the Middle East."

The American Conservative goes on to say "The hatred Bush has generated has helped immeasurably those trying to recruit anti-American terroristbsindeed his policies are the gift to terrorism that keeps on giving, as the sons and brothers of slain Iraqis think how they may eventually take their own revenge. Only the seriously deluded could fail to see that a policy so central to America's survival as a free country as getting hold of loose nuclear materials and controlling nuclear proliferation requires the willingness of foreign countries to provide full, 100 percent co-operation. Making yourself into the world's most hated country is not an obvious way to secure that help." and concludes that " George W. Bush has come to embody a politics that is antithetical to almost any kind of thoughtful conservatism."

The conservative Financial Times also endorsed Kerry, saying "Mr Bush's flaw is his stubborn reluctance to admit mistakes and to adjust personnel and policy."

There are many other endorsements and criticisms. For example, 48 Nobel Laureates Endorse John Kerry because "Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy-making that is so important to our collective welfare." Again, this points out that Bush lacks adaptive capacity, and is uninterested in considering facts.

Nobel Economist George Akerlof has called the Bush administration "the worst ever".

Then there are the books:

Perhaps most important of all are the comments by military leaders:

The astounding thing is how well Bush's "reality-creating" approach has stood up to this criticism. With any president in my lifetime (with the possible exception of Reagan), any one of these thoughtful criticisms would be enough to cause serious questioning of the president's competency. But Bush seems to be skilled at deflecting the criticism by pretending it doesn't exist.

On the other side, the Republicans can point to Democrat Zell Miller as a Bush supporter. The Swift Boat Veterans claim Kerry is Unfit for Command, and they should have their say, but it now seems clear that they are not providing first-hand knowledge of Kerry.


If these two candidates were applying for the job of president, Bush would not get past the initial phone screen. Kerry scores well on all accounts and appears to be a very strong candidate. No interview process is perfect, but this one seems clear-cut.

Peter Norvig