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If a pollster calls you at some point during this election season, one of the strangest questions they ask you could be:
“Who would you rather have a beer with?”
And you didn’t know the president would be inviting you to the White House for a beer, or picking you up after work to take you to Joe’s Bar. Because, of course, he won’t. But that doesn’t stop pollsters from exploring the question of “likability,” and it doesn’t stop the media from reporting on it as if it were a relevant factor in determining who should be the next president.
Politicians put a great deal of time and attention these days into trying to be likable, as they’re convinced this will influence a great many voters. This quest for likability can involve everything from looks ($400 haircuts and Botox) to jokes on the stump to local sports references at every stop, some of which are guaranteed to backfire – like when John Kerry told a bunch of Wisconsin cheese heads how much he liked going to football games at “Lambert Field.”
And almost all of this is completely irrelevant to the job of the presidency. In fact, I would argue that the need to be liked can make a leader much less effective – since true leadership is often the opposite of pleasing everyone.
I can’t think of a better example than Barack Obama.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was regarded as the much more likable candidate than either primary rival Hillary Clinton (whom he infamously and condescendingly told, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”) or general-election opponent John McCain. It’s hard to say what the basis was for this belief. I’m sure part of it was that he seemed very natural and comfortable when speaking in public. He seemed to have the ability to relate to ordinary people. And by all appearances he does seem to be genuinely devoted to his family, which is great.
But being president of the United States is arguably the most difficult job in the world. It’s certainly the job that presents the most problems for everyone else when someone does it incompetently. And however likable Obama may have been, there was no reason to think he was qualified for the job. Having served two-thirds of a single U.S. Senate term, with no executive experience of any kind prior to that, simply did not recommend him for the presidency of the United States. Any objective look at the facts should have caused voters to conclude, “This man is going to be in over his head.”
And he has been.
Facing one of the most difficult economic challenges of the last several generations, we elected a man who had never had responsibility for any economy – good or bad, of any size. He had one idea, which was to spend hundreds of billions of dollars of borrowed money. When that didn’t fix the problem, he was stumped. He knows nothing about economics and nothing about business or job creation. And without executive experience, he didn’t know how to surround himself with knowledgeable people who could guide him to better solutions. He had no idea what to do, and he still doesn’t.
He’s been even worse on the foreign-policy front. Iran and North Korea are playing him like a fiddle on matters of nuclear proliferation. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, simply disregards him. And for all his talk about how his predecessor supposedly alienated our allies, Obama has managed to upset the British on the question of the Falkland Islands, the Canadians on the question of oil purchases, the Poles on matters of missile defense and “Polish death camps” and Israel on just about everything.
How much do you like him now?
But as badly as Obama has bungled the presidency – and that is very badly indeed – we have to recognize he is not the only one with culpability here. When the Democratic Party put him on stage at its 2004 national convention to give the keynote address, which he delivered very well, it was absurd that an obscure Illinois state legislator should have been instantly elevated to the level of “rising star” on the national political scene. Given his almost nonexistent record of achievement during his tenure as a U.S. senator, it was ridiculous that he was treated as one of the top-tier candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination – while a candidate like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had an incredibly impressive resume, was treated as a joke.
Being likable has nothing to do with whether you can lead a nation. It doesn’t mean you can’t, but voters and the media need to look at a person’s qualifications – in the areas of leadership, achievement and ideas – and stop worrying about who they would like to have a beer with. If you want to have a beer, go have one with your friends. Leave the presidency to someone who has actually led something. Likability is not leadership.