It does not require courage to do what is popular or safe. Political leaders in a democracy must, by definition, be popular at election time or they will no longer be leaders. So it is even more difficult for a President, whose choices are not masked by being one vote among many, to be morally courageous than it is for other politicians. Ironically, to be morally courageous, a politician must be willing to forfeit the very position that gives him or her the power to make the morally courageous decision in the first place. Fail to be courageous and your country will suffer and history will criticize you; make the unpopular but morally courageous decision and we may well remove you from office.
Most would credit Lincoln with moral courage in his handling of the Civil War. More contentious cases could be made for Franklin Roosevelt's response to the Depression, for Reagan in his refusal to accept the inevitability of half the world living under Communism, and for Carter in his principled campaign for human rights in a political environment that normally only pays lip service to such things. Whoever your personal political heroes, it is likely that you admire them in significant part because they risked doing the right thing instead of the safe thing. Historian Barbara Tuchman observes, "Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption, and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first. And the test should be moral courage."
It is not difficult to see how prudence is valuable for any leader. In both Greek and Jewish traditions, prudence or wisdom is knowledge about how to live well and the ability to put that knowledge into practice. It involves right priorities and right choices. Intelligent people can be fools. Knowledgeable people can be impractical.
It is entirely appropriate to evaluate whether a person seeking public office has lived wisely in his or her private life. Too often we attribute the wisdom to lead to someone who has merely been resourceful enough to succeed in business or some other area. We have de-stigmatized many private failures in recent years (divorce, past drug use, sexual irresponsibility), but it is still relevant to expect that public leaders show wisdom in the choices they make in their private lives.
Practical wisdom, as opposed to intelligence or knowledge, is necessary to respond helpfully to the many political problems that involve competing goods or "no good choices." The illegal immigration problem sets the reasonable need to control one's borders against the pragmatic fact of what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already here. The response to terror in the world requires a balance between the goal (security, certainly, and perhaps the extension of democracy) and the means to reach that goal (wiretapping? torture?). The political system perhaps never "solves" these issues to everyone's satisfaction, but a leader needs the virtue of practical wisdom to move us forward.
No quality is more often invoked in contemporary political campaigns than justicefrequently under the umbrella of fairness. In fact we have trained citizens to present many of their demands in terms of what is fair and of injuries to fairness. The poor, the middle class, and the rich all contend that the tax system is not fair to them. Gays, women, and people of color each present themselves as victims of a society and political system that should, in the name of justice, offer them protection and redress. But so do corporations, lawyers, religious organizations, and many other social entities that by many measures are doing quite well. It is self-evident that a President must care about justice, but what does that mean and what would it look like? We should assess the nature and intensity of candidates' commitment to justice and ask them to articulate both the foundations for their commitments and to give evidence that they have acted to make the world a fairer place. If that action was evident in their private lives even before they sought public office, so much the better. It means more than campaign platitudes and position papers about social justice and helping the poor.