Every four years, the U.S. Presidential campaign provides pundits and the public a fresh opportunity to decide what qualifies a candidate to be the nation’s political leader. This year, the leading candidates are offering “experience,” “change,” and “straight talk.” But reading between the lines of their carefully pruned biographies and message-tested stump speeches, we see much more complex people—and much more skillful consensus builders—than the sound bites of the primary season can convey. 

Though sometimes criticized as “polarizing,” Hillary Clinton has been successful as a bipartisan legislative bridge-builder on health care and veterans’ issues. While casting himself as an outsider bringing change to the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama worked closely with a tough crowd of Democratic Party insiders to pass a groundbreaking campaign finance disclosure law. John McCain has earned his reputation for independence by advocating bipartisan legislation (on climate change and immigration) and passing it (on tax reform, campaign finance reform, rules on torture), while arguing that his core values remain Republican and conservative.

Do the candidates have what it takes to translate their successes as legislators into presidential consensus builders? In our evolving thinking,1 presidents and other senior public executives need a distinctive set of political skills to drive public decision making forward from goal-setting through strategy development to implementation and impact. The five skills we’ve identified are “political” in the sense that they focus not on the substantive analysis of issues or the mechanics of electoral, legislative or regulatory process, but on identifying, engaging and influencing a wide array of public stakeholders, in highly contested terrain, to manage conflicting interests, change incentives, build agreements and maintain coalitions.

1. Translating Vision into the Right Priorities: the ability to turn a broad vision into a set of ambitious but achievable goals, and to adjust and reframe those goals in a constantly changing landscape of public concerns, political risks and opportunities.

Though we ask presidents to act on principle and resist compromising their core values, we also want them to get things done. For presidents and other leaders, priority-setting is both a question of vision and a matter of judging “ripeness”—the combination of public demand for solving a problem, the availability of policies that seem likely to help, and a political balance favorable to action.2

As for vision, the historian Henry Adams wrote that the President “resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.” Arthur Schlesinger, among the greatest presidential scholars, agreed with Adams, noting “The Constitution offers every president a helm, but the course and the port constitute the first requirement for presidential greatness. Great presidents possess, or are possessed by, a vision of an ideal America. Their passion is to make sure the ship of state sails on the right course.”3

Leaders must also translate vision into clear and concrete priorities for action. Skilled leaders set priorities through a finely honed process of dialogue with key constituencies, examining the political or organizational landscape for issues on which action seems possible and desirable, and testing new ideas and themes.

After his election, Bill Clinton judged right on prioritizing deficit reduction as an area of common ground in a closely divided country, despite strong Republican opposition to higher taxes. In retrospect, he and Hillary Clinton erred in making health care reform their next top priority. Though their vision was clear, they misjudged the political forces for and against reform, and were too confident in advocating a complex policy solution whose impacts on cost, coverage and competition were hard to understand. Even the greatest presidents can overreach: FDR’s initiative to sway the Supreme Court by adding Justices became the infamous “court packing” controversy, and Roosevelt discovered that public support for New Deal reform did not give him a mandate to remake the judiciary.

2. Assessing Stakeholders: the ability to identify the key political actors (in government, civil society, business and communities) involved in a complex issue, assess their interests, capabilities and constraints, and find out what arguments and incentives are most likely to influence their views and their behavior.

Once priorities are set, Presidents and other leaders need to deepen their understanding of the players whose support is going to be necessary to enable progress, those whose opposition could stymie it, and those who could be mobilized as allies or opponents depending on the way the issue is framed and proposals are presented.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama recently stirred controversy over the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To historians of that epic struggle, one thing is clear: the two leaders were one of the finest political assessment teams in modern American politics. During the winter and spring of 1964, the two men and their deputies talked many times, trying to determine where key Senators stood on the draft bill, and what it would take to gain a 60-vote majority on the Senate floor. In considering what would move those Senators, they assessed a huge range of stakeholders, from the die-hard Southern segregationists in the Senate to Southern white clergy, Northern liberals and TV anchors. They also considered and debated dozens of possible amendments to the draft legislation, in light of their assessment of how key Senators and their constituencies would respond. Without that focused and ongoing process of joint assessment to drive strategy and action, the two could not have achieved victory.4

3. Crafting a Strategy for Influence: the ability to plan and structure a process for influencing the decisions or behavior of other actors. Strategy includes the selection of tools/approaches (coercion, persuasion, advocacy, negotiation, coalition and consensus building), sequencing (what actions to take in what order), and substantive choices (what facts, proposals, options and questions to explore with individuals and groups during the process).

On any major issue, advancing presidential priorities requires a clear strategy for building support among key stakeholders—whether the Congress, the American people, or foreign governments. The choice of strategy can vary enormously depending on the issue, the target of influence, and the decision making arena. LBJ was famous for his ability to move the Congress through carefully calculated sequencing (figuring out which legislators would be most influential with their peers, and then developing strategy to influence them). Facing a Democratic Congress, Ronald Reagan relied heavily on regulatory coalitions on issues where he could not drive legislation.

Presidents can also change the incentives for Congressional leaders by appealing directly to their constituencies, as Harry Truman did in his campaign against the Republican “do nothing Congress” in 1948. After the Republicans retook Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton developed a strategy of “triangulation” between increasingly polarized Democratic and Republican party leaders, using his persuasive powers with the voting public to limit losses on the issues most important to him.

In foreign policy, the President has more decision-making latitude and more coercive power. Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ended the Vietnam era and changed the global balance of power by opening diplomatic relations with China, then offered détente to the Soviet Union from a position of strength. Jimmy Carter staked his presidential capital on bringing Egypt and Israel to a peace agreement, and succeeded at Camp David through a careful sequence of relationship building, understanding the interests of both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in depth, creating new options to deal with the most contentious issues, and using very substantial pressures and incentives to close the deal. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, used a coalition building strategy to isolate Iraq at the UN and gain commitments by more than 30 nations to a multinational force, before giving Saddam an ultimatum.

Whether acting as a negotiator or as a mediator, the President has to chart an agreement-seeking strategy using the basic elements of issues, interests, options and alternatives, and design a sequence of actions to make some choices less viable and others more attractive for the other players.

4. Choosing the Right Roles: the ability to choose and enact a role that key political actors will see as legitimate and appropriate. The role may have to shift subtly or swiftly in response to changes in the situation and/or in the set of actors involved.

Presidents play a number of formal roles: as Commander in Chief, senior executive of the Federal government, foreign policy maker, and legislative negotiator, among others. Cross-cutting these functional roles is a set of process roles: advocate, convenor, facilitator, and mediator. Effective advocacy (using what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt famously called “the power to persuade”) is certainly a critical skill for presidential and other forms of public leadership, but not the only one.

Frequently, the President must act as a convenor, and sometimes as a facilitator or mediator. When John F. Kennedy struggled to respond to the intelligence that the USSR had placed missiles in Cuba, he began by playing the role of convenor. He pulled together a small group of trusted advisors—the ExComm—to assess the situation and the motivations of Soviet and Cuban leaders. He facilitated their discussions, raising questions without taking positions, and encouraging the group to generate options. Only after managing and guiding an intensive deliberation within the ExComm did he take on the role of advocate, speaking publicly—and with great impact—on the nature of the crisis and the U.S. response.

5. Using Personal Influence: the ability to communicate, negotiate, advocate, facilitate and/or mediate effectively with other actors to advance a set of goal(s), taking account of others’ personalities and life histories, professional and institutional roles, cultural norms, and relationships with other actors.

Whatever role the President chooses to play, building consensus requires not only good analysis, but very strong interpersonal and group management skills. The presidency, like many other senior positions in the public eye, requires a strong, tough ego. But successful presidents do not lose touch with the reality that they must earn and maintain the trust of the public and of thousands of other leaders, and that doing so requires not only acute analysis and strong will, but also authenticity and empathy.

The modern presidency has featured several insightful leaders who used their “emotional intelligence” to great effect: FDR had an uncanny ability to sense the public mood and build on it through his fireside chats and public speeches; Ronald Reagan used gentle humor to deflect the criticism of his most vociferous opponents; and Bill Clinton’s voracious appetite for meeting, understanding and winning over people of all political persuasions helped him advance his agenda and defend his presidency. There have, of course, been presidents with problematic interpersonal skills: Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush arguably suffered from acute limitations on their ability to work with those who disagreed with them; and Richard Nixon’s deep personal insecurity led him to extraordinarily petty, vindictive, and ultimately illegal acts.

The man who may have been America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, was certainly one of our finest practitioners of interpersonal politics. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals portrays him harnessing the egos, ambitions and wounded pride of his two rivals for the presidency, William Seward and Salmon Chase, to preserve the Union. Lincoln succeeded by showing them unfailing respect, taking them deeply into his confidence and offering them more power than they had expected.

Over the course of the war, Secretary of State Seward went from seeing Lincoln as a lowbrow, cunning country lawyer to recognizing in him the greatest statesman the country had known. When Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase could no longer contain his own ambitions, and began to undermine Lincoln in large and small ways, Lincoln offered him an exceptionally graceful exit (from the Cabinet and from his political career) to the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And when Lincoln finally decided that General George McClellan’s case of “the slows” and outright defiance of his orders were causing the Union to lose the war, he relieved him of command in a way that demonstrated unambiguously Lincoln’s authority as Commander in Chief, while honoring McClellan’s service and thereby preserving the unity and spirit of the army.

To be effective in a context where they have surprisingly little power to direct, but enormous power to influence, presidents must translate vision into a set of political priorities, assess stakeholders and ways to influence them, craft strategies for advocacy, negotiation, coalition and consensus building, and use interpersonal skills to manage potentially explosive tensions with allies and opponents. When they perform these tasks with skill, they increase the chances that the ship of state will hold to their chosen course. When they falter, the ship may too.

As this year’s campaign for the presidency continues, we should be as attentive to the candidates’ management of complexity, conflict and ambiguity as to their policy statements and self-presentations. Governing is very different from campaigning, and the political skills laid out here are probably a better guide to performance in office than the set of “principled positions” that the candidates are endlessly repeating to win the battle of sound bites.

Equally important, we should ask whether candidates who seem less able to build broad consensus will be capable of overcoming some of their limitations—or turning to others in the White House and in the Cabinet—to become more effective in office than they appear in the campaign. Public leaders unquestionably can develop their coalition and consensus building skills over time, but the next president will face a raft of pressing challenges at home and abroad on Inauguration Day, and is likely to have short honeymoon in a country eager for change.

In the remaining months of the campaign, we should be seeking more clarity from the candidates on how they will move from platform to priority. Whoever wins, we hope that the new president will quickly translate a broad platform into a clear focus on a few “ripe” issues; spend the time to understand deeply the full range of stakeholders, interests and options on each issue; seek bipartisan support as a core element of strategy; and use personal engagement to build confidence in presidential leadership and in the political process.


  1. The five skills reflect our ongoing work with the United Nations to develop a set of political competencies for top UN development representatives.
  2. John Kingdon argues that the alignment of these “three streams” is necessary for effective action on major public issues. See his Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (Harper Collins, 1984).
  3. Arthur Schlesinger, “Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton,” at The Choice 2004, PBS Frontline.
  4. The story is well told in Nick Kotz’ Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America (Houghton Mifflin 2005)