Presidents' success often depends on how well they respond to events that could not be anticipated when they ran for office. Consequently, while it's important for voters to know Obama's and Romney's views on current issues, it's even more important for them to assess how Obama and Romney would deal with crises that have yet to occur.
Since voters can't see the future, they have to gauge the candidates' capacity for good judgment. Presidential decision-making is an art, not a science, in which discerning intuition matters as much as raw intelligence. Because the circumstances presidents contend with and the outcomes they hope for are so uncertain, they often have to depend on good guesses
Presidents frequently have to make quick decisions with incomplete information. This was the case with Obama's order to send Navy SEALs into Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan without knowing for sure whether the al-Qaeda leader was even there.
Presidents can't know everything or be everywhere. So they have to be good judges of the people they rely on, and they have to filter advice based on a sixth sense about the people who deliver it.
Looked at from this angle, the length and pettiness of American political campaigns are assets, not shortcomings. As Obama campaign manager David Axelrod put it, our presidential contests provide "an MRI of the soul." We get to see if candidates can show the grace under pressure and judgment they will need to do the job.
And it's no disgrace if Americans are less than fully informed about where Obama and Romney stand on all the issues. Seemingly trivial information about a candidate can become important because voters are looking for what poker players call a "tell" — an unintentionally revealing clue. Voters scrutinize candidates for hints about the cards that aren't showing — as opposed to the ones they present theatrically on the campaign trail — because presidencies are defined by tomorrow's surprises more than today's challenges.
Presidents do the best they can to respond to unforeseen events. Without facts or certainty, they rely on their intuition and hope things turn out well. It's sort of like what voters will do in November.
Alan Draper is a professor of government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.