Is Obama <i>Too</i> Likable?

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., takes part in a roundtable discussion at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Dec. 3, 2007. AP

This column was written by Michael Currie Schaffer.


Isn't it about time America had a president we could admire? That's not some stump-speech rhetorical question. Rather, as the country heads into an election year, it's a significant subject - one that has become central to the battle between the supposedly admirable Barack Obama and the supposedly unsympathetic Hillary Clinton. The arguments from Obama's cheering section invariably boil down to the idea that their guy would be a president worthy of admiration, not just partisan loyalty. And though she certainly has her true believers, that's not something you're hearing a lot about Mrs. Clinton. The contrast must be something of a problem for the former First Lady, since she now seems to have adopted a strategy that involves taking a hammer to the Illinois Senator's halo.

But forget dredging through the merits of Clinton's thus far flimsy attacks on her rival's good name. It's worth asking a simpler question: Do we really want a president who inspires such a gut-level emotional bond on the part of supporters? I'm not so sure. There may not be all that much to admire about admirability.

Let's stipulate for a minute that the current pro-Obama hype is all true: Obama, as a slew of commentators from right, left, and center have suggested, is the sort of person whose biography will someday be made into an inspirational tale for schoolchildren. Clinton, meanwhile, will never be anything more than a grim dynast, propelled to the White House and then maintained in office by the chilly science of political tactics. What would either option mean for the country?

In the case of Obama, it might mean, for a time at least, a president who is adored by much of the country. (Though even worshipped presidents like FDR inspired their share of loathing, something that would likely be even truer in this age of national polarization.) But assuming that a President Obama had won at least some of the GOP and independent support that his boosters claim he will, it would leave the country with a chief executive able to ask great things of the public. What would those great things be? Much of his supporters' hope about change crystallizes around the national re-branding that would come from having a post-Vietnam, multiracial, bridge-building leader in the White House. But you can bet such a surge of admiration would be seen in an Obama administration's policy proposals, too - from health care to Social Security, the environment to trade. A guy who started his career as a community organizer knows not to sit on that sort of political capital.

By contrast, the sort of Hillary regime described by her detractors would never have a whole lot of political capital to spend. Most Clintonian victory scenarios involve her winning the standard list of blue states and grabbing enough of various micro-targeted demographics to win back some of the purples, too. The campaign would feature a wonky and ruthless Clinton against a more likeable Republican who nonetheless doesn't seem to get the year's main priorities. In other words, an election a lot like the one her husband won over Bob Dole in 1996. The resulting administration, utterly devoid of accumulated goodwill, would have to scrape and struggle for pretty much anything it wanted. Luckily, the very act of victory would have shown it had the skills to scrape out at least some results.

If you're watching an epic movie, of course, you want option number one: the hero. In the less cheerful world of real history, though, option number two has its merits. Political admiration does funny things to people: We suspend our skepticism, take things on faith, ignore contrary evidence. The institutions that are supposed to act as checks on power grow timid, either because they're afraid of the voters, like Congress, or anxious about their audience, like the media. On the other hand, a leader with no reserve of faith among the general public doesn't have those luxuries. The whole world is watching with distrust, so you'd better do your job perfectly.

You don't have to look too far to find an example. George W. Bush was literally an action-figure hero to his legions of admirers, a man worthy of emulation. They loved his personal religious faith, his plain-spoken language, his sweeping assertions of power. The fact that Bush's political foes viewed those qualities as either phony or unworthy of admiration only made the bond stronger. Now, as his administration staggers to its end amidst towering debts and troubled foreign entanglements, I'm betting some of them wish they'd been a bit more skeptical when it counted. The country would surely be better off. For that matter, Bush would probably be better off, too, had he been capable of the alertness that comes from knowing you have to prove yourself everyday.

America's fascination with turning presidents into moral exemplars springs from the Constitution's commingling of the jobs of head of state and head of government. It might, in fact, be easier to do the dirty business of governing in a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, where the figurehead monarch inspires misty-eyed patriotism while the prime minister is, personally, no more than a guy who clawed his way to the legislative leadership. Although large periods of the 19th century featured unloved one-termers in the White House, we now expect more than that. Today's state of affairs, in an odd way, renders voters kind of childish, clinging to a naïve faith that no human, and no political office, deserves. Worship-generating leaders have certainly had their uses, but in launching the post-Bush era, it might be more helpful to remember that elected officials are just another class of professional. I never swooned for Bush. The Clintons put me off for all the standard reasons. Indeed, I'm the sort of card-carrying blue-stater who's supposed to go weak in the knees for a CV like Obama's. But perhaps it would be better for the country to have a president that no one much liked.
By Michael Currie Schaffer
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