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Presidential Lessons from Christie's Mess


Presidential Lessons from Christie's Mess

January 13, 2014

The Chris Christie mess in Fort Lee shows exactly why Americans should prefer tested executives rather than unproven legislators for the Oval Office. Either the scandal will be traced to the governor himself—in which case Americans will have learned something damning about this potential president

—or it will stop at his underlings—in which case, the governor will himself have learned something crucial about management. In either case, the country benefits from the travails that can beset the leader of any complex organization. 

The legislative branch has many virtues—especially its ability to check the power of the executive—but it presents ordinary members with few opportunities for obvious failure. Constituents expect some services, surely, but that is hardly an arduous task. Big legislation is rare, so reasonable voters do not expect their congressman to regularly author earth-shattering laws. You might think that voters would at least expect their senators to vote—showing up is usually a key ingredient in job performance—but John. F. Kennedy was regularly at the low end of participation in Senate votes. 

Indeed, the only way that a senator or congressman can really err is to get caught doing something flagrantly illegal or to say something absolutely outrageous. Someone who has survived a few years in the legislature has proved that he can control his mouth and avoid criminal acts. These are both good talents for a president, but this is not a high bar to set in choosing the leader of the free world. 

By contrast, governors, mayors and other leaders of large organizations have an abundance of opportunity for major mistakes. There are clear duties that must be performed, and everyone notices if a city has failed to clear its snow or its garbage. When commutes suddenly degenerate because lanes are mysteriously closed, journalists start writing. The leaders of states or cities are held responsible for the actions of their subordinates, and this means that their personnel decisions are perpetually on trial. 

The opportunity to err is a great advantage. We learn by making mistakes. If Governor Christie gets through this mess, he will surely be a different and better manager. He will be warier of empowering political operatives. He will send a clearer message to his team that public service should never be sullied by petty political vengeance. If he ever does make it to the Oval Office, he will be a better president because of this public failure. 

Conversely, if the paper trail links the lane closings to the governor himself, then any presidential ambitions are likely to be over, and that is also a good outcome. If he was responsible—and I have no knowledge to suggest that this is true—then voters will have learned that his character makes him unsuitable for higher office. 

Before World War I, there was little need to expect administrative experience from a president, because presidential responsibilities were typically mild. While occasional presidents, such as Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, rose to greatness, limited government made managerial competence far less necessary. 

Since World War II, however, the president has become the head of a vast bureaucracy that guards the planet and serves millions. Managerial skill became important. No President has ever been elected with as much managerial experience as Eisenhower, for D-Day may have been the ultimate opportunity for colossal failure. When Americans elected Ike, they knew what they were getting, and he brought enormous administrative capacity to the White House, managing both to keep the peace and limit the aggressive spending demanded by the Pentagon. 

Experienced Governors, including Reagan and Clinton, may not have gone through Eisenhower’s cauldron of fire, but they had at least felt the hot breath of possible public failure on their necks. Experience of that heat—which Governor Christie is now acquiring—provides protection against future fiascos. Wouldn’t an experienced manager been better at foreseeing and forestalling the failed Obamacare website roll-out? 

It is sad when any politician of promise is tarnished by scandal, but it is even worse when politicians do not face the possibility of disaster. The Christie mess is yet another reminder of why voters should demand serious executive experience when selecting a President. 


Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard and a contributor to e21.

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