Why Campaigning is Easy, but Governing is Hard

August 15, 2011

I’ve been watching, with interest, the emerging campaign for Presidency of the United States. I gave up involvement in politics a few years ago to devote full-time attention to ministry, but I am still keenly interested. I watched clips of the GOP Presidential debate last Thursday night. I’ve always enjoyed the debates and give the candidates credit. We give our candidates grief, joking about politicians, etc. But consider what an act of courage it is to stand up on a stage and subject yourself to the public grilling.

In a sense, campaigning for President is difficult–giving up two years of your life, sacrificing your family, schlepping across the country, from county fair to parade to union hall–and yet in another sense its easy. Allow me to explain. We put our leaders through this rigorous test of a campaign to see what they are made of. We test their mettle. You can’t just coast into the White House. If you want the top job in the land, you must allow us to poke and prode, to lift up the rocks and see what’s underneath them. The media will scrutinize you and we will not only allow it, we will like it (because the media only produces what we consume). We will knock you down and see how you respond to adversity.

And yet, all of this is the easy part. Because when you’re campaigning, you can be anything you think you need to be to get elected. For instance, if you’re running for President as a conservative Republican, you can please the base by telling us you will never raise taxes, you’ll burn down the EPA, and will eliminate the Department of Education. Of course you will never do that as President, because the limitations of power will keep you from doing this. Plus, a hurricane will sweep through Florida and won’t give you time to eliminate the Department of Education. It’s the same if you’re running as a Democrat. You can promise to end poverty in four years, cancel all of America’s wars, and guarantee every person a job. It won’t happen of course but you can put it out there to those who want to hear that.

This is the difference in campaigning and governing. As soon as you place your hand on the Bible, now you’re the guy in charge. You get the intelligence briefings. You see the political dynamic in Congress. You are aware of things that the rest of the country has no idea about. You can’t say a thing. And, you must deal with another side of the political spectrum that doesn’t like you. So you have to figure out ways to get them on board so you can pass legislation and begin to fulfill some of your promises. You also have to prioritize. What can you get done? And what’s the best timing?

Governing is hard. You have to make decisions that will be unpopular. You have to lead, which means convincing people who don’t agree with you. You have built-in enemies. Suddenly, there are less hills upon which you will sacrifice your political capital.

This reality is not just confined to political leadership. It’s a reality of leadership on all levels. When you’re interviewing for that promotion, you can promise to be all that your prospective employer wants you to be and more. And you might say anything just to get the job. But once you’re in that position, you realize the limits of your power. You discover that leadership is hard, interviewing is easy.

It even applies to parenting. I remember my wife and I laying out lofty goals for our children. We had 2, 5, and 10 year plans. We were going to be different than our parents. And it was going to be so easy. Then something funny happened. We got married, had children and realize that parenting is hard and those precious little souls have their own wills that you cannot always control. You realize how dependent you are on God.

I want to bring this back to the race for President, or any leadership position. Leadership is often an empty, difficult task. As I read Presidential biographies I’m amazed at the despair and sense of desperation on the part of most U.S. Presidents. They had worked their entire lives for this position and yet they realized the White House can often be a prison.

This is why we should pray for our leaders at all levels. And maybe we should select them, less for the rhetoric they promise, but for their history of leadership. Have they governed a big enterprise before? And how did they do?

The easy part is the campaigning, the criticizing, the punditry. The hard part is the leadership.