Our Iowa neighbors will begin narrowing the fields of presidential hopefuls Monday night. After a series of debates and hundreds of campaign appearances, it is pretty clear who stands for what.
What's less clear — yet every bit as important — is harder to measure: If elected, how would they deal with the unexpected?
It's no idle question. A major requirement for the next president is that he or she possess the judgment to deal effectively with challenges unforeseen. It's happened to almost every president.
Events over the past year or so on the foreign policy front provide one illustration. President Barack Obama ran in 2008 on a promise to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet military disengagement from the Middle East and Afghanistan has proven far more difficult than his administration expected. And with the turmoil in Syria, the largest refugee crisis since World War II has erupted on Obama's watch.
Look back over the generations, and unanticipated challenges are a pattern for U.S. presidents:
George W. Bush and the 9/11 attacks — and the Great Recession. Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis. John Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franklin Roosevelt and World War II.
Herbert Hoover entered office in 1929 assuming the robust economy would keep chugging along. The Great Depression struck.
Something similar happened in 1837, when Martin Van Buren rode confidently into office as the handpicked successor of Andrew Jackson. Only a few months into his presidency, the bottom dropped out of the economy in the Panic of 1837.
When James Madison was inaugurated as president in 1809, no one could have imagined that only a few years later he would need to evacuate the nation's capital in the midst of another war with Great Britain.
Even George Washington's presidency was marked by the unexpected. The Whiskey Rebellion erupted in protest over taxation and was quelled only after a show of force that included a mounted President Washington himself.
Over the decades, our presidents sometimes have dealt effectively with the unexpected. At other times they've fallen far short.
A central question at election time, then, is to take a good look at the candidates and ask: Which is truly up to the job of handling the unexpected?