Like a Good Referee, the Next U.S. President Should Be Measured, Courageous, and Decidedly Not the Story


I love basketball. Most Americans love basketball. President Obama loves basketball. So, let's use a basketball metaphor to define the best kind of U.S. President.

In the NBA (National Basketball Association), you have at least two referees, often three. For this discussion, think of them like the President (since one is the lead referee) and Vice-President, with the third being an amalgam of the agency heads within the executive branch.

The "refs" enforce the rules of the game. They do not make the rules. The rules are decided by the NBA's Competition Committee, consisting of two owners, four general managers, three coaches, and one representative from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). There are no referees on this committee. Any recommendation this committee makes goes to the NBA's Board of Governors for approval. There's no referee on that august body as well.

In the NBA, the referee's job is to consistently enforce the rules, while taking into account the context of play in any given game (e.g., excessively rough play results in more fouls, and even technical fouls, being issued). Moreover, the referee's job is to keep play safe and fair, while maintaining the flow of the game ("let the players play," in basketball parlance).

Above all, the referee's job is to not become the story. When the referee - because of some boneheaded, out-of-character or weirdly timed call - becomes the story, the citizens (fans, players, owners, coaches, et. al.) get upset, confidence in the game declines, and play suffers. What any nation, like any NBA game, like the world economic order itself needs most is predictable and competent rule enforcement. If a ref is calling a game correctly, players and coaches easily adjust. If a President is calling the game correctly, businesses, nations and citizens easily adjust.

The job of a great referee, like the job of a public servant, is to only assert his or herself into a contest when the rules have been clearly broken or the game has gotten out of hand. In this way, the NBA referee's primary role is akin to the Commander-in-Chief role of the United States President. Unless special circumstances warrant, the U.S. President rarely exercise the extraordinary enforcement power invested in his office. Instead, a U.S. President, like a good referee, works to facilitate a game that is neither "too tight" nor "too soft." Like Baby Bear's porridge, he or she wants a game that is "just right," so that the animal spirits of the free market, combined with the creative genius of entrepreneurs, can work their magic.

Unfortunately, in 21st century America, we have this childish idea that our elected referees are the star athletes. They are, thus, supposed to be entertaining, lovable, even sexy, showmen, pandering to least common denominator sentiments, appearing on low-brow talk shows, or worse.

We recently elected a nice family man for two terms to the job of top referee on planet earth. This altruistic Junior Senator had no real world experience running a company. He had studied the constitutional rules of the game, but, in practice, his work history was that of community organizer and professor.

Though Mr. Obama possessed an emotionally intelligent demeanor, he differed in key respects from what this nation - born as it was of the prudent, self-reliant wisdom of Franklin, Jefferson and Madison - needs in a leader. First, he was ridiculously popular. This had a lot to do with his stylistic and lifestyle choices. He snorted cocaine as a teen, smoked a lot of dope too, and continued to smoke cigarettes and play basketball as an adult. Moreover, he was lanky and smooth, and said all the easy, wildly popular things that would get the liberal poor and young excited about his candidacy. He was thus thought to be "cool." He was also, quite admirably, cordial to friend and foe alike.

And, incidentally, he was half-black. So, electing him to the top job would not only be historic, but it would also be an historically symbolic gesture that would make "folks" (our President's favorite term of endearment) feel like they had finally buried the race hatchet that few Americans of any stripe actually want to talk about, despite the President's calls for a "national discussion" on this over-invoked subject.


However, the ultimate referee on planet earth should not be chosen by the color of his skin, his looks, or his suave "just folks" demeanor. He should be chosen because he or she can enforce the rules of the game in a humble, productive and consistent way. A good ref does so in such a manner that the flow of the game - whether in commerce or sports - is not unnecessarily impeded.

Like bankers, Presidents should be somewhat boring. You wouldn't trust your hard-earned income to a backslapping, hail fellow well met fiduciary, so why would you trust your taxes to a similar fellow running for President? If the subprime mortgage meltdown taught us anything, it's that bankers should not be allowed to take outsized risks that threaten the banking system. If you like risk, become an oil wildcatter, not a banker. Same applies to referees in all other incarnations.

Referees are not rockstars. They are supposed to be courageous and disciplined, able to make a tough, unpopular, but correct call when all the fans, players, coaches, managers, owners and commentators vocally hate them for making that decision. They should never be the story.

President Barack Obama has always been the story ever since he embarked on his rockstar run for President. His very autobiography suggested that a vote for him was a vote for a striking narrative. His narrative was the country's narrative.

Yet, despite all the orchestrated fanfare, in comparison to the intemperate Mr. Clinton, the measured Mr. Obama had all the makings of a great referee. He certainly was a breath of fresh air after the preemptive recklessness of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Indeed, in many ways, over the course of his scandal-free tenure, Mr. Obama has nobly done what any good referee should do: nimbly and fairly enforced the rules of the game.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama's us vs. them, rabble-rousing demagoguery undercut the enormous promise he at times showed. He demonized business people who used private jets, even as he rode the world's most expensive non-commercial jet. He slammed Wall Street investment bankers, even as he took sizable donations from them. He routinely called out absentee fathers in America's inner cities, while refusing to back legislation that would mandate personal responsibility as a condition of government assistance.

Most intemperately, he called for "immigration reform," while deliberately - and for transparent political gain - failing to thoroughly enforce our immigration laws, and then proactively preventing states from picking up the slack. Ever the politician, he oversaw just enough deportations to keep conservative naysayers in his own party at bay, though his goal was never to end illegal immigration. That conscious and unconscionable dereliction of duty is akin to an NBA referee taking bribes to throw games that manifestly affect who wins an NBA championship.


A true referee would have shut the border down to all illegal immigration and sent most of those here illegally back home in the most compassionate, but forthright, way possible. Mr. Obama, too needy for adulation, too cowardly to speak truth to fawning members of his liberal base, was not interested in that sort of tough love. It was if the President had a secret tape of Cleveland's Matthew "Delly" Dellavedova admitting that he purposely went out on the basketball court trying to harm opposing players, but decided not to prosecute because he wanted the long-suffering Cavaliers to finally win a championship. That's how this President rolled on immigration. And it was a disgrace that clouded his genuine achievements: opening up Cuba, offing Bin Laden, raising fuel efficiency standards, fostering LGBT civil rights, passing credit card reform, improving food safety and school nutrition, and at least trying to solve, however imperfectly, our nation's health care crisis.

Indeed, despite the refreshing balance and decorum be brought to this country's dealings with our allies after the knee-jerk bellicosity of Mr. Bush, Barack Obama lacked the steely fortitude needed in a world game increasingly dominated by a series of Ron Artests. For these reasons, he is a cautionary reminder of what we don't want in our next commander-in-chief.

A wise leader, like a wise referee, does everything in his power to not be the story. Moreover, he actively blocks all machinations that make him or her the story. Finally, because it's good for the nation, good for the game if you will, he has the courage to make the tough call, even when it might cost him an election.

This coming year, when you select our next President, please look for the person who gets these principles in his or her DNA. Though your baser instincts tell you otherwise, avoid the person (e.g., Obama, Bill Clinton, Reagan) who makes you feel good because of their preternatural need to be loved. Such candidates usually had an absentee, often alcoholic, father figure in their childhood.

Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, noted that the best leader, the true leader, eschews elective office, eschews popularity in all its forms, and thus eschews appeasing the masses in order to get ahead. The true leader eschews promotion or recognition, unless it is fully justified.

For these reasons, the true leader must be begged to lead. Only when a nation is desperate for wise, courageous, "high-minded" (in Aristotle's words) leadership will it stop falling for the usual demagogues. We are clearly not at that point in America, as the cavalcade of bombastic fools, charlatans, and opportunists currently running for President suggests.

What we need in our next President is someone who eschews the limelight, who is fully dedicated to the protection of the constitution, and who consistently calls plays the right way, despite enormous pressure from players, fans, coaches and owners.

And we need someone who knows when to call the game tight. For example, when rogue players (narco-terrorists, smugglers, illegal immigrants, looters, rioters, Wall Street cheats and other white-collar criminals, ISIS, Putin and his ilk, the financially derelict leaders in Greece, Argentina and Venezuela) threaten to destroy the game itself, you need to call the game very close indeed, lest you send a green light to further destructive behavior.

In 2016, fifteen years after 9/11, we do not need another people-pleasing co-dependent. Or someone who feels that is their time, their turn, their birthright, even as they couch it as "our turn." We don't need someone who says all the things that will make his or her base giddy with joy. We need a steady enforcer of the rules of the game. And those rules apply equally to Wall Street hedge fund tycoons, to cops in and out of uniform, to those who violently riot and loot because a court decision does not go their way, and to those who persistently and cavalierly cross our borders illegally.