What voters should be prospecting for is whether a candidate has political instincts. Can he read the landscape? Does he have a theory for how to gain political power? Does he know how to use it? What is his understanding of the public's tolerance for change? Does he enjoy the relentless give-and-take required to get things done? Has he ever convinced someone who disagreed with him of anything?
A candidate may have great ideas, management skill and a serene temperament, but that won't help much if he can't swim in these rough currents.
How much is politically possible in Washington today? Where are the openings for action and compromise, and why?
If politics is the art of the possible, as Otto von Bismarck said, how does a president know what's possible? The conditions are not the same for every president. Each faces a different "political time" — a set of political challenges unique to his moment in history — as political scientist Stephen Skowronek explains in his wonderful book "The Politics Presidents Make." Voters are either hoping for change or wary of it; the opposition is either in a fighting mood or in shambles; and the priorities a candidate championed on the campaign trail are either in sync with the coalitions in Congress or a pipedream.
Some presidential proposals are already popular with the public and require little more than a push from the chief executive. Other programs may be possible if a president unlocks dormant public support. Some ideas will never get traction, no matter how much a president pushes. A president must recognize the limitations and opportunities of the political times he inhabits.
We are stuck in this debate at this very moment. Republicans — like all parties looking at the White House from the outside — argue that the president can redirect the country's course in a snap. Romney is promising an economic turnaround almost immediately after he is elected. That was the mood music behind the GOP's convention in Tampa, Fla. President Obama, who ran in 2008 promising the same kind of action-hero presidency, is much more realistic now. He's so realistic, talking about the limitations of changing Washington from the inside, that Republicans are saying he's already given up.