By Martin Bosworth
MyDD’s Todd Beeton explored this question in the wake of Obama’s response to the Libby commutation as an example of the “old politics” he wants to dispense with, and in response to Politico’s assertion that in the wake of Bush’s reign of error, competence trumps likability. As you can see from the comments to both articles, the topic is inciting some strong responses.
Now, you have to bear in mind that the Politico is basically another right-wing shill outlet (Check out Glenn Greenwald’s delicious evisceration of the paper’s status as an auxiliary Drudge Report), so anything they say needs to be taken in that context. Still, it’s a legitimate question–but the answer isn’t what people think it is.
Bush and Obama are two very different kinds of likable. Bush’s likability is typically described as “the guy you can have a beer with,” even though this guy was born into the privileged elite of one of Connecticut’s richest families and basically spent his entire life failing upward. But at the time of the 2000 election, Bush’s inarticulate, dumb-hick “regular guy” act was successfully contrasted with Al Gore’s stiff, somber, serious intellectualism–if there’s one thing Americans hate, it’s being reminded that they are not as smart as they think they are. We cherish our long tradition of anti-intellectualism, and whereas Clinton provoked (and still provokes) incredible envy for being a trailer-trash hick whose raw intellect and ambition propelled him to the world stage, Bush could reassure us that yes, he was as dumb and clueless as the rest of us, and therefore he was the “regular guy made good” we all (supposedly) aspire to be. I explored the contrasts between Bush and Clinton in more depth a few months back if you’re interested.
Obama’s likability, by contrast, comes from a very different place. The man is almost superhumanly charismatic, gifted with an eloquence and oratorical flourish that our greatest leaders would envy. He has steadfastly refused to “go negative” and attack his competitors for the Dem nomination, and has even couched his distaste for the Bush junta’s shenanigans in the most positive frame possible:
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, and presidential candidate
â€œThis decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an Administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law. This is exactly the kind of politics we must change so we can begin restoring the American peopleâ€™s faith in a government that puts the countryâ€™s progress ahead of the bitter partisanship of recent years.â€
This sort of high-minded, above-the-fray attitude has won Obama an astonishing amount of financial support. Look at those numbers–he’s killing EVERYONE. The model of the “new politics” appeals to a lot of people who are tired of the rancor and bitterness that dominates our landscape. It’s a different sort of likability–Obama’s not the guy you want to have a beer with, but he IS the guy you respect and want to listen to. I want that in a President more than anything, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard.
I still consider myself an Edwards man, because his campaign is more sharply addressing the issues I consider important–poverty, economics, the crunch on the middle class–and because he’s not afraid to wade into the fray and challenge the right-wing attacks on him. Obama, too, has signaled that he is more than willing to challenge assaults on him, and will use his financial muscle to maximum effect. If Obama takes heed to Edwards’ success in articulating the plight of the middle class–or, God willing, if these two teamed up for great justice–even the Clinton juggernaut would have to pay heed, and the GOP might as well put the mike down and hope for a more hospitable political climate in 2012.