Is Barack Obama too likable to be President?

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
“This 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 people’s faith in a government that puts the country’s progress ahead of the bitter partisanship of recent years.”

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.

22 replies »

  1. I get the sense that Obama is trying to be the Next Great Leader. He sees, accurately enough, that most of the rest of our “choices” are, to one degree or another, variations on a tired theme. That no matter how they claim to be opposed, Candidate A and Candidate B are a lot more alike than they are different.

    I think he’s looking back to our rosy-hued memories of Jack and Bobby and trying to be that grand charismatic visionary who can unite and inspire. And truthfully, this isn’t the worst idea ever. Like you, though, I wonder how capable he is of delivering on the vision.

    I guess time will tell. In any case, I don’t think “I’m not like the rest of these apparatchiks” is a message that’s going to hurt him at this particular moment in time.

  2. I’ve been a strong supporter of Obama for a while now (hell, I’m even the head of “Broomfield for Obama” )
    and while his clarity and eloquence are refreshing in light of our current president, what really drew me towards him was the way in which he approached political problems. His rhetoric on inclusiveness is matched by his actions. As opposed to five years ago, it is very, very easy to bash Bush and the Republicans in general now. There is so much low-hanging fruit that it takes a good bit of self-control to not score easy, cheap political points to rile up your base. It seems that Obama figured out that his is seeking to lead more than just his base.

    When John Bolton appeared on the Daily Show a few months ago, he said something to Jon about how the administration had an obligation to those who voted for him. Steward responded (paraphrase) “But doesn’t the president have an obligation to all Americans? Not just only to the ones that voted for him?” This crystallized for me the difference between the Bush administration and how a future Obama administration would lead this country. The way that he handles problems takes the interests of the country first and foremost, well ahead of the interests of his “base” or political party.

    This can be clearly seen by the way he approaches political issues in his book “The Audacity of Hope”. For each of the issues he puts forth the case for the other side of the argument, in most cases more eloquently then conservatives have done for themselves, before conveying why he chose the other viewpoint. This wasn’t done to just run ideological circles around the opposition or flaunt his intellectual mastery of the issues, it is to show that other viewpoints have merit and should be taken honestly into account.

    The other members of the Harvard Law Review recognized this when they voted for him to be their president. “Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn’t appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides in the tribal warfare,” said Bradford A. Berenson, a former Bush administration lawyer who was an editor at the review.

    This country desperately needs an adult to lead it. Ironically, the youngest candidate is also the most mature.

  3. I’ve been taking the time to look at Obama’s policy positions and they’re certainly ambitious and centered in that Kennedyesque “good government” model. I also think the love for Obama comes from both a polarizing hatred of Hillary (right or wrong) and a general dissatisfaction with the idea that the Presidency might be dominated by two political dynasties (the Bush and Clinton families) from 1988 through 2012.

    I’ve been rethinking my lack of support for Obama for the reasons you cite–but here’s the problem. The more you consciously TRY to be The Next Great Leader, does that make you less likely to actually BE it? Remember, Lincoln often got made fun of for being a poor, uninspiring speaker. 😉

  4. Djerrid,

    The wisdom of youth should never be overlooked–indeed, it grants the clarity and truthfulness of vision that experience often obscures.

    Obama’s message of positive engagement is something I have to mull over, as years of having to battle conservatives to even maintain ground has bred that world-weariness in me. 🙂

  5. Right, Martin – will people see it as a natural function of who he is or merely a calculated brand?

    I think he’s sincere, as pols go. But I also think that when you raise $32M in a quarter you’ve offered an IPO on your soul.

  6. Sam,

    I think that depends on where the $32 million comes from. Is Barack getting love from Hollywood and big business like Hillary? Or is he tapping the “small donor” base?

    This looks like a job for Denny. 😉

    To your main point–the danger of believing your own hype of being the Saviour is–well, we’ve been enduring the reign of terror of a guy who believes the same thing. But unlike Bush, I see no indication in Obama that he truly thinks he’s the Messiah–just that he’s more than willing to play to those expectations.

    I’d vote for Edwards before him, but if Edwards is out of the running, he gets my nod. If they teamed up–aw, man, that would be like the Justice League. 😉

  7. Sam,

    Running a campaign takes money–it’s set up that way!! There should be a campaign pool to run for President. Everyone should get an equal share of that pool and be allowed to use nothing else. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We can’t have a flawed system then demoninze candidates for having to raise and spend money. The concept in itself is flawed, not the man (this does NOT directly speak to Obama).

    The one thing I love about America is that we have a Choice. Obama is the newest Choice in long time.

  8. Martin: I have always suspected that the more inherent value a thing or person had, the less likely you were to find any money in the neighborhood. Yeah, this is an overgeneralization, but it explains why I’m automatically suspicious of the fact that you can find THAT MUCH MONEY in a worthy place.

    tiiz: Yeah, the system is well and truly fucked. It assures that ONLY whores get to play. So what you root for is the guy or gal who manages to retain as much soul as possible, under the circumstances. It’s the lesser of the evils process in a system that guarantees all are evil.

  9. Sam: Is that based in the presumption that anything that’s inherently worthy doesn’t need the money to sell itself? I can get with that if that’s what you mean. 😉

  10. tilz,

    Sadly, the Supreme Court has already ruled that money = speech. Here’s an alternative that might pass the court’s muster. A certain percentage of the funds raised for the candidates is put into a pool that is equally distributed to all of the candidates. That would reduce the oversized influence the big doners have in the political process without completely eliminating it.

  11. Martin – no, it sure ain’t that. Closer to the opposite. If it’s inherently worthy nobody wants it, more like it…. 🙂

  12. Sam,

    Ok, there I disagree, but we could post for days on the question of worthiness and get no closer to an answer. 🙂

    Money inherently taints everything it touches. But it also makes many things possible. I view it as neutrally as I can–like a gun, a computer, a car, or a book, it has innate power to harm or help. The circumstances of its use are what determine the outcome. (Actually, I tend to view guns as always doing harm, but you know what I mean.)

  13. Martin: I guess this all stems from the fact that I have, through the years, become a creature I never wanted to be. I wanted to be a poet and a teacher. I wanted to enlighten minds and find new ways of enchanting our cultural life.

    Dick for money in that, and I could only stand so much spiritual nobility, if you hear what I’m saying. So over time I have become a businessman instead of a teacher and a blogger instead of a poet, and it’s all because I couldn’t live on the things I found to be of genuine value.

    Jaded? A little. Bitter? I hold it inside so it only corrodes my own soul.

  14. And you say you’re not a poet. 😉

    Sam, I would say that S & R, all the work you do with 5th Estate, and even Black Dog are perfect examples of cultural enlightenment. I wouldn’t worry about your place in history any more than I would mine. And I said it myself once–all the psychic income and prestige in the world doesn’t pay my rent.

    Reality often intrudes in on our dreams, but we also have the power to make our dreams real. Circling back to the original point, I think this explains the appeal of Obama–he inspires and helps people believe in government and the goodness of the country again. If he married that inspirational power with Edwards’ sharper, stronger take on the issues, the resultant candidate would be unstoppable.

    Thus why I hope those two team up. 😉

  15. Poetry is like herpes – you’re never cured of it, you’re only in remission.

    Maybe Obama has all he needs to make it to Rushmore. We hold up Kennedy as this icon of a President, but let’s face it, getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to his legacy. If not for the martyrdom he might be remembered more for the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis (which is a scary-ass way to put one in the win column) and Vietnam. Inspirational? Sure. But in terms of how great a Prez he was on results and policy? Not so much.

    Maybe the world is now such that leadership is all about being The Great Inspirator. And given where we are as a culture, if all he does is inspire each of us to try a little harder, that will make him the best we can reasonably hope for.

  16. Why all the favorable comments about John Edwards? The guy’s a smooth-talking personal injury lawyer who made multiple-millions suing insurance companies and doctors-driving up insurance rates for others while keeping 40% for himself. He built an energy wasting 28,000 square foot mansion for himself, while he took a $55,000 speaking fee from the U of Cal -Davis for a speech about poverty in America. He’s disgustingly vain (see You tube-John Edwards Feeling Pretty- play the whole painful two+ minutes–and get ready to get sick.) He charged his campaign for two $400 haircuts, and is on the road campaigning to satisfy his own giant ego while his wife if fighting for her life. John Edwards-not a chance in my book. And, please, not Hil. Obama’s the obvious choice- only he can attract democrats, republicans and independents and implement the real change that is so badly needed.

  17. John,

    There’s a very specific and directed campaign against John Edwards because he’s talking about poverty and class issues in a way that no one–not even Obama–has done in the last few years. The traditional media looks for every opportunity to undercut him that they can. Check out this Washington Monthly link for an example of what I mean:

    Now, his campaign has made a lot of gaffes and mistakes (Mudcat Saunders comes to mind), but I don’t think all the things you cite are among them. Some, but not all. Elizabeth Edwards is hardly shy about speaking her mind–hell, I have no doubt she would have John home in a New York minute if that’s what she wanted–but she’s still out there campaigning and pushing him to do so.

    I’m rethinking my Edwards allegiance based on my studies of Obama and some of the aforementioned mistakes Edwards has made, but I’m not there yet. 🙂