2016: The Competency Election

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden  in Washington on April 2, 2013.

Photograph by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on April 2, 2013.

If 2000 was the decency election, and 2008 the change election, 2016 could become the competency election.

If each presidential election for an open White House offers the American public a new course — specifically in reaction to the most troubling aspects of the departing chief executive — the dysfunction that prevails in Washington today could become the catalyst for election of the next president.

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush campaigned with a pledge to restore dignity to an office that had been tarnished by Bill Clinton’s sexual escapade with an intern, an affair that led to impeachment though not removal from office. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama campaigned with a promise of hope and change, and a pledge to end the U.S.-led war in Iraq, capitalizing on the public’s disillusionment with both that war and the president who put the nation in it.

In 2016, after what could be several years of inaction on some of the biggest problems facing the nation — ranging from immigration to tax reform, and stagnant educational and employment opportunities — the table will be set for a leader with a menu of plans and the mettle for executing them.

In a recent Pew Research  Center poll, 54 percent of those surveyed said Obama cares about them and most called him trustworthy. Yet 53 percent said he cannot get things done — only 44 percent said yes, he can.

This is not as dim as the perception the public held of Bush  at a similar juncture, in the summer of 2006,  following the government’s mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, when just 41 percent said he cared about people like him and the same number deemed him trustworthy. After his failed pitch to privatize much of Social Security at the start of his second term, a majority, 51 percent, also said he was not able to get things done.

If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she will be campaigning with a resume, a former senator from New York and secretary of state for the first half of Obama’s presidency who knows her way around Washington — after her bruising and losing battle for her husband’s health care reforms in the 1990s — and on the world stage.

Clinton’s globe-trotting tour with her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” has exposed her to pointed questions about her possible plans for another Clinton presidency. In an interview with the New York Times’ John Harwood on National Public Radio’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” yesterday, Clinton was asked a question which she made clear she had no intention of answering.

“… In the book when you’re describing your role as secretary of state: It includes the policy element, but it also involves being the C.E.O. of the big, vast State Department apparatus,” the interviewer asked her. “Every four years when people run for president, governors say, `You ought to elect a governor because we’ve run things, we know how to manage.’ Are part of the problems we’re now seeing in the Obama administration, both in foreign policy and domestically, a function of the fact that their leading figures, President Obama, Joe Biden, you as secretary of state, were legislators who came out of the Senate and not people who had run things before?”

“Oh,” Clinton said, “you don’t expect me to agree with that, do you? Look, I think it depends on the individual. I had serious disagreements with George Bush and he was a two-term governor.”

“But is there a management deficit in this administration?” Harwood asked Clinton.

“I think there is a political deficit in Washington because of gridlock and opposition to the president that started the first day he went into office,” she replied. “And I find that so regrettable. I don’t want to sound naive or Pollyanna-ish about it, but I think we’ve got two big crises in our country. One of them is the economic crisis, which we all know has just dramatically increased inequality and stagnated middle-class incomes and outcomes. But we also have a political crisis. Our democracy is not working and I do not see how we’re going to resolve a lot of our issues. If you look at the reforms our president has put forward time and time again that would make the government more manageable, move it into the 21st century, they’re just met by a solid wall of resistance.”

Which returns us to the question of who might have a plan, and the toolkit, for breaking that “wall of resistance.”

If Clinton doesn’t run, Vice President Joe Biden surely will — as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, has put it, “in a New York minute.” With more than three decades in the Senate, Biden has run for president twice.

“I think Joe would be a superb president,” Obama told Evan Osnos, for a probing profile of “The Full Biden” that The New Yorker has published. “He has seen the job up close, he knows what the job entails. He understands how to separate what’s really important from what’s less important. I think he’s got great people skills. He enjoys politics, and he’s got important relationships up on the Hill that would serve him well.”

A lot of these attributes may sound to some like skills for the next president that Obama himself has been faulted for lacking — discerning the big issues from the small, lighting to the political fray and prevailing among people barring his or her way, possessing the skills on the Hill that make legislation possible. They are some of the skills that anyone who meets the competency test in 2016 will probably have to demonstrate. The public will probably want a plan as well.

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