Should we judge presidents by their professional and leadership performance or by their characters? The question is both challenging and important. Recent White House scandals suggest that Americans consider individual character as one of the principal criteria of presidents’ leadership and professional performance. For instance, looking at Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the former scores higher on his leadership qualities, political experiences, and professional decisions, but voters are still worried about his moral character (Cafferty). Just a reminder: with his three marriages and the cases of infidelity, Gingrich’s political and personal position is much weaker than that of Mitt Romney (Cafferty). The notorious sex scandals surrounding the figure of Bill Clinton are a good motive to consider why (or why not) presidents should be judged for their professional achievements and not for their characters.
Theoretically, we should not judge presidents by their character. We should focus on their professional achievements for a few reasons. First, private character does not always predict presidents’ public performance (White 169). Second, prior decisions and even prior public character cannot guarantee that presidents will not change their professional conduct in the future (White 169). Third, the public becomes excessively preoccupied with scandals, which chase away potentially good leaders capable of producing positive changes for the nation (White 169). Fourth, all presidents are humans; they become presidents to lead and govern and not to save voters’ souls (White 169).
These, however, are theoretical assumptions that have nothing to do with reality. In real life, presidents’ professionalism is inseparable from their moral character. Public judgments about presidents are strongly influenced by their public behaviors, including sexual behaviors (Pfiffner 65). In this sense, the case of Bill Clinton is very demonstrative. Presidential leadership is a unique blend of personal character, political effectiveness, and public purpose (White 170). Consequently, we must judge presidents both by their professional effectiveness and personal character, because only a person with a strong moral character can successfully pursue the public good.