Interview Questions for the Next President

In another year, it will be time to start thinking about hiring another President of the United States. What we get from the press is constant handicapping of the race, a series of short sound bites, and staged debates that are more about scoring points against the opponent rather than revealing more about the candidates.

I can do without the horse race aspect of the reporting entirely. What I’d like to see are long, conversational interviews with each candidate, where the goal is to let the candidate talk, so that we can learn more about each one. I’m not interested in playing “gotcha”, but I would like the interviewer make sure each question was fully, thoughtfully, answered.

1. Why do you want to be President?

I want to know why they’re running. Ego? Power? A feeling they can make a difference? It’s a lot of work running for president — what drives them?

2. What kind of previous government experience do you have?

It’s very popular to complain about Washington insiders, but I’d rather have someone who knows what they’re doing. I want to see someone who has demonstrated competence in a government role, who has dealt with an opposition party or a bureaucracy, and who has shown that they can be trusted to act for the good of their constituents, not just themselves.

3. Do you have any executive branch service anywhere?

The presidency is more like a governorship than it is like a legislative position.You have to set policy, deal with cabinet heads, and deal with emergencies. A state governor –especially of a large state — is more apt to have had more germane experience than a senator or representative.

Government service is also unlike a business. You can’t dictate to Congress, for example — they represent (at least in theory) the people and their states too; you have to find some sort of common ground and work from there.

4. What do you view as the role of the federal government?

Does the candidate have a limited vision of the role of the federal government, or an expansive one?

5. Tell us about your management style.

Some presidents have been very hands on, others have tried to hire good people, and let them do their stuff. It’s a very tricky balance — one of the criticisms of Jimmy Carter is that he got lost in the details of governing. Other presidents have been too hands off.

6. Who are the people you are relying on for this campaign? If elected, what role would they have in the government?

7. How do you pick people to work for you? What kind of people would you be looking for if elected?

The President’s staff makes or breaks an administration. It’s crucial to have trustworthy people who share the president’s vision, but it’s also crucial to have people strong enough advise them when they’re wrong. They need to be competent to carry out their duties. And they need to be honest.

I want to know from the candidate how they would go about hiring a Cabinet and other staff. What do they look for? What qualities are important to them? What process do they use? Would they consider using former opponents, or members of the opposite party?

8. Have you ever had to work with your political opponents? What have you accomplished with them?

9. Are there any political opponents you admire? Who and for what?

The American federal government is set up to divide power. It’s not at all uncommon to have a President of one party and a Congress of another. And even if the Congress is of the same party, working with them is often like herding 535 cats. I want to see if the candidate has dealt with this before, and if they have, what they did. What were they willing to offer the opposition? How were they able to compromise? How were they able to shepherd a piece of legislation through the legislative thicket?

I want to hear about their values. I want to see that they can work together for the common good. I want to see what they can recognize as a worthy opponent.

9. How do you make decisions?

When I was in school, my math teachers always said, “Don’t just show me the answers, show me the work”. What I didn’t understand then is that the teacher wanted to see how we thought through the problem, and understood the basic concepts.

In the same way, I want to see how a candidate thinks through a problem. I’m hoping, first of all, that they do think through a problem, rather than running with their first gut reaction. How do they approach problem-solving? What kind of research do they want to do? How do they evaluate conflicting values? Concretely, what’s their decision making style? Long discussions with subordinates? A lot of reading? Doing research, then setting it aside for a moment?

10. What past presidents do you admire? Why?

Here, I’m looking for thoughtfulness and historical awareness. I’m not looking for a quick list of the names of the presidents on Mount Rushmore.

I want to see that the president has some sense of how our government has and does work, and who they think has made it work best, and who has responded to crises the best. This of course, is also a value judgement, and I want to get a sense of what they value.

11. What would you look for in a Supreme Court Justice? What past or present justices do you admire? What would you criticize about past or present justices?

Because Supreme Court Justices have lifetime tenure, its important that the President choose well. I want to hear what kind of legal philosophy they’re is looking for.

12. What are your domestic priorities?

Now we get to to the candidate’s positions, which is where the press usually begins and ends. To my mind, these are much less important than the candidate’s overall philosophy, competence, temperament, and honesty, because the presidency is essentially, at least in modern times, a reactive job. Presidents spend much more time putting out fires than they do promoting their own agendas. Still, I do want to hear what they think is important, what programs they would like to advance, and I want to know whether their priorities align with my own.

13. What are your international priorities?

Again, presidents are more likely to be reacting to world events than they are to initiating action, but the president does have more scope for action on the international stage than they do domestically. I want to know what their priorities are, what alliances they think are important, what policies they want to continue, and what policies they want to change — and why.

14. What worries you about the world situation?

Maybe worry is too strong a word, but I do want to see an awareness of what’s going on in the world, and an understanding of the threats and opportunities America faces, and a historical awareness of what we, as a nation, and the Presidency, as an office, can do in the face of them.

Overall, what I’m looking for is someone who is intellectually and morally honest, thoughtful, and has the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the problems they will face. I expect them to put the countries needs ahead of their own needs, or the needs of their party or region. I would prefer someone whose political biases match mine, but I also recognize the need to compromise with an opposition.