In the incessant debate about the pluses and pitfalls of various Democratic presidential candidates, we hear a great deal about their abilities to serve as heads of government, but much less about their potential as heads of state. In other nations, these two roles are invested in different persons. The often-cited example is that of the UK, in which the Queen serves as the head of state and the Prime Minister as the head of the government. Monarchs also play such a role in Japan, Holland, and Denmark. In Israel, the head of state is a person selected by a majority of the Knesset (parliament). The role of the head of state is to symbolize the nation as a whole, to stay above the fray of politics, to lead ceremonial occasions, to comfort those in grief, and to inspire. The prime minister is the chief executive but also a partisan figure, typically the head of his or her political party. The American Founding Fathers, having just rebelled against a king, decided famously to combine both roles in the presidency.
Previous Presidents differed a great deal in the balance they struck between the executive and nation building roles of the president. Jimmy Carter was not much of a manager and surely failed to unite and inspire the nation, what might be called the queen’s test. Taking John F. Kennedy (mainly a leader) and Lyndon Johnson (an apt manager) together, one can see why they were able to usher in a major social change, bringing about the Great Society. Ronald Reagan was a very effective head of state, but left the governing to others. George H.W. Bush was more of a manager, while George W. Bush –after 9/11 — became a head of state who left too much of the management of the state to Dick Cheney (at least in his first term). One may disagree about any of these characterizations of the standing of specific presidents, but still agree about the importance of the distinction — and of the queen’s test.
In recent days, we have heard a lot about the fact that, given that Pete Buttigieg has been only the mayor of a small town, he has little large-scale managerial experience and hence would make a poor president. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has bragged about his experience managing a big city and hence presumably would be more than ready to manage the federal bureaucracy. Former Vice President Joe Biden prides himself on having managed to get things done in Washington by working across the aisle. Tom Steyer believes this his private sector management skills qualify him to run the USA. Senator Amy Klobuchar believes that her skills, honed in the Midwest, are what the nation is yearning for. But who will make the better queen?
Klobuchar lacks gravitas; she comes across as youthful. Critics will say that men say this about women; however I had the same feelings about Andrew Yang. Bloomberg gets a low score on the queen’s test; he’s as inspiring as a printout of some computer run by McKinsey. At the dramatic moment of formally launching his campaign, Bloomberg could not deliver a short speech without consulting his notes several times.
One may argue that Senator Bernie Sanders passes the queen’s test with flying colors; he is inspiring and commands the fiercest loyalty of his followers. (Hardly anyone talks about him as a great potential manager.) However, sadly, his charisma is being employed to divide the party and country and to champion policies that are too radical for the majority of Americans. Everything I said about Sanders applies also to Senator Elizabeth Warren — only a somewhat less so.
I listened to Mayor Pete at the home of Susan Ness and Lawrence Schneider, a place most presidential candidates stop by to share their ideas. (I guess once they learn that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent an evening there, they find Susan’s invitation irresistible.) I found that for every issue, the Major had a well thought-out position that was both pragmatic and politically savvy. For example: Sanders (and, until recently, Warren) argue the people hate their private insurers and hence they will not mind being forced into Medicare. Buttigieg holds that people should be offered a public option, which would allow all those who want to join Medicare to do so. Hence, if all Americans are indeed keen to join Medicare, they will be able to do so (a position that should satisfied the left) — and if not, no one will be coerced (which should speak to the moderates). I also felt that Pete was rather comfortable in his own skin.
However — he failed the queen’s test. He showed no emotion; had zero affect; everything he said was delivered in monotone. I later read that he almost never cried.. If Pete Buttigieg can put some fire in his belly, or let us see what he has, he may be the best candidate of the lot.
Whenever Trump leaves office, the nation will need more than it has in a very long time — a President who can promote unity, give voice to national values, comfort, and inspire — someone who can pass the queen’s test. The Democrats have yet to find such a candidate.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video called “Political and Social Life after Trump.” His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.