There are similarities between the campaign and the presidency. Both tasks require a candidate to perform well under pressure, communicate effectively and build a team that trusts you and can function with little sleep and lots of stress. Obama political adviser David Axelrod says the crucible of the campaign uncovers the hidden personal qualities that you can't list on a resume. "It's an MRI for the soul," he says.
But if good campaigners made good presidents, we'd have a constant string of successes. Most sitting presidents, almost by definition, have been skilled on the campaign trail. Yet the talents do not necessarily convey. Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964 in part because of his attention to the minutiae of the contest. He carried a laminated card in his pocket of the key polls in each battleground state, but Vietnam was beyond his ability to micromanage. Nixon and his men brought modern public relations techniques to the presidency in 1968. As president, he trampled on the office. In 1974, Jimmy Carter was such a political unknown that no one on the game show "What's My Line" recognized him. Two years later he was president. Wise men considered Carter's meteoric rise proof that he was a political genius. Maybe he was. But he was also one of our least effective presidents.
Campaigns reward fighters. Governing requires cooperation, compromise and negotiation. Campaigns focus on one opponent, but a president, even if he wants to go on the attack, never has just one jaw to swing at. President Obama must attack the Republican Congress — John Boehner one day, Paul Ryan the next. It was easier to slug John McCain again and again.
Presidential campaigns are fantastical places. Here, on the campaign stump, the United States can be ruthless with China diplomatically — but not beholden to Beijing as creditors. Entitlements are always safe — even as the deficit is drastically cut. Candidates build an electoral coalition by papering over differences and offending no one. Then, as president, they are forced to make choices that almost always offend some wing of the coalition they built.