What Makes A President Great Is That They Are There When You Need Them

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Answers by Matt McDonald, Former Presidential campaign staffer; Consultant in DC on economics policy at HPS, on Quora.

A: I'm not sure you can evaluate a President outside of the moment when they came to office, and trite though it is, I think you have to start with Washington as the President the nation most needed when they needed him.

I think there were two big things he presented:

  • He had a tremendously high level of respect among his fellow citizens. This meant he was able to lift the country above internal disputes and avoid bitter politics or factionalism during the first years of the country when bigger fights could have foiled the experiment.
  • He relinquished power when he didn't have to. Today we have the 22nd amendment, but by relinquishing power early, he allowed the nation to transition power in a peaceful way, which young nations need to practice, and he established the precedent of future presidents stepping down after two terms. He didn't have to do this.

While we look back today and see that things went well, it's easy to forget that this was not a foregone conclusion. One has only to look around the world at popular movements turning to dictatorship or young democracies that have difficulty coming together in their early years.

There are obviously a number of other presidents who fall into the category of great and provided what we needed at the time:

Jefferson for the Louisiana purchase, making the US a continental nation (he also gets a bump for his role as a founder and the Declaration of Independence as a document of our national creed)

Lincoln for preserving the Union and ending slavery

T. Roosevelt for transitioning the nation to modernity and status as a budding global power

F. Roosevelt for tackling the Great Depression and victory in WWII (Truman gets a bump for finishing the job)

I think Reagan is too recent to get consensus here, but peaceably ending the Cold War is a big deal (GHW Bush gets a similar bump for finishing the job)

Would also give a plug to Hamilton, who though not President played a key role in establishing the foundation for a strong finance system and was a key part of Washington's team.  Plus, he's enjoying a nice pop-culture moment.


A: Ah, Trump.

So, I think that Trump will completely change in a general election, but prognosticating anything with him is tricky. Let me make a few observations:

Trump is a high volatility candidate. He is the type of candidate that could win 60-40 and lose 40-60. I believe him to be in the latter category today, but no one should discount his ability to disrupt the current political alliances in unpredictable ways.

He will be a historically weak nominee. He still may not secure the nomination. It is very likely he is; but the delegate math is still difficult for him, and the opposition to him is significant. Regardless, he will be leading a fractured party into the general.

He is a celebrity. Political dynamics with celebrities are different. When I worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger and we had our first bus tour, the protestors at the first stop dropped their signs and ran over to get autographs. People feel like they know celebrities already and so new information doesn't have as much effect.

People are grumpy.  There are many anecdotal stories of people deciding between Trump and Sanders, and while that may not intuitively make sense with such different agendas, they draw on similar wells of discomfort with the status quo. People who support both have some shared thinking, though it manifests itself in different ways:

  • My economic opportunity/wages have stagnated and no one is addressing it
  • The culture of our society today does not reflect my life or concerns
  • The other party is not playing by the rules and they need to be forced to do what is right

All of this means a pretty unpredictable general election. For Trump to be competitive, he is going to have to disavow some things he has said to date and people will have to forgive/forget. But while I would say the latter piece is unlikely, I do not think it is impossible.

I won't be voting for him, regardless. Nor will I vote for Clinton.


A: The single biggest thing you learn at McKinsey is the art of structuring your thoughts. Whether you are trying to solve a problem, or explaining your view to someone else, you are taught to always do it in a structured way. I think this accomplishes two basic

  • It forces you to improve your own thinking. Structuring your thinking really forces you to consider all options and all possibilities. This results in a more robust answer.
  • It makes your thinking easier for your audience to understand. After diving deeply into an issue or problem, it can be easy to assume the answer is obvious, but that's only because you've been living it. Structuring your communications forces you to think critically on what really matters and why, resulting in a better recommendation with a higher probability of being adopted.

The way this is usually done is by working through an issue in a way that is MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive). If you look at most of my answers on Quora they are often structured in this way, with my different points delineated from each other.

Of course, sometimes I break the rules, because I also used to be a speechwriter.

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