Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Real Me

I have a post up at PP this afternoon that I sort of liked about how the presidency is a job for politicians. Meanwhile, I the hook I used for it was a Romney adviser poor-mouthing him as a poor politician, which as I said was really just a way of spinning away his poor favorability numbers.

I went another way in the PP post, but another way to think about this is that, yes, favorability numbers should be thought of as a function of political skills and not some innate likability. To put it another way: likeability is generally not separate from other skills a politician might have. Oh, sure; there may be someone somewhere who would have terrific bargaining abilities and overall political sense but just repel so many voters that he or she would be unable to be elected. But that certainly can’t be the case for presidential nominees, who cannot make it that far without making themselves at least somewhat appealing to voters.

And the key there is “making themselves.” Political images aren’t something inherent in politicians; they are products created by candidacies and by the interaction of those politicians with the rest of the political world. Remember: everything you see, from one-on-one interviews to convention speeches to, yes, debate performances, is almost always thoroughly rehearsed and prepared. Nor are those performances received in isolation. Barack Obama was more charming – perceived as more charming – in 2008 than in 2010, not because he changed but because the political context changed. One reason why nominees look great at their conventions, as Romney will undoubtedly look great tomorrow night, is because they are by definition winners, and winners always look better than losers.

In that same vein, I have no problem with anyone who wants to watch the candidates -- or their spouses -- to get some idea of the persona that they'll be displaying in public should they win. But don't be fooled: what they show shouldn't in any sense be thought of as who they "really" are. Nor should you trust reporters to get at it. Every politician, and certainly every one of them who reaches that level, learns to put on a public face for the cameras -- and, yes, for those quieter interviews and "candid" moments, as well. Which is fine; of course they do that. It's part of the job. Just don't mistake it for something other than what it is.

(And it's not just what they're trying to do. We have lots and lots of examples of times when reporters apparently just got it wrong, perhaps because they tend to fall pretty easily for politicians -- or celebrities, or ballplayers -- who put real effort into working them. Kirby Puckett, anyone?).


  1. We've gone back and forth a few times about whether POTUS and MNC CEO are essentially the same job. These posts, and skimming the Neustadt link, convince me that - particularly in the Peter Drucker era - the jobs are largely similar, as both roles are essentially Persuaders in Chief.

    Thanks in part to Drucker, virtually all big corporations are broken into several smaller 'corporations', with Division Presidents having ownership of profit centers and the CEO acting sometimes as cheerleader, sometimes as tonesetter, and sometimes as evaluator. All similar, it seems, to Neustadt's view of the Presidency.

    What makes the corporate structure work appears to be the same thing that Neustadt meant by "mutual dependence": i.e., one or more of the Division Presidents may hate the CEO, desperately wanting the CEO's job, but both the CEO and the Div. President benefit when the Div. President's Profit Centers do well. Similarly, we can safely assume that HRC ferociously despised BHO when she handed over her delegates four summers ago; as SOS, her political success and his are mutually interdependent.

    Making all this interesting: what's true about an MNC CEO is - almost breathtakingly - not remotely true about the CEO of a vulture capital firm. Say what you wish about the economic benefits arising from Bain's form of capitalism, but it simply beggars belief that those boys ever persuaded via a method other than the point of a spear.

    Which leads to a phenomenal conclusion about our representative democracy: we are about to select a man to be the most powerful in the world on the basis of resume data that specifically suggests he would be uniquely, staggeringly, awful at the job.

    This is incredibly pessimistic, but man we are one seriously f**** up polity.

  2. Well, the current officeholder is "uniquely, staggeringly, awful at the job", so we must have a matched set, then.

    So apparently, it comes down to Ryan vs. Biden. ;-)

    1. Hey, I'm no huge defender of Obama's competency; I'm an annoying fan of relevant experience - Obama's lack of same really shows, imo.

      Still, its sort of remarkable that we had maybe 100 million qualifying conservatives we could have nominated for the Presidency, and we settled on the guy whose relevant life experience is diametrically opposed to the demands of the job (if you believe Neustadt).

      Worse yet, we conservatives are actually proud that we chose an historically inappropriate person given the demands of the job, thinking - in an amazing display of collective cognitive dissonance - that his wrongness is what makes him so right!


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