Commentary Magazine


Topic: presidential popularity

History + Media Bias = Likable Obama

President Obama has had a run of bad luck recently. National tracking polls show he remains in a dead heat with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The result of the Wisconsin recall election was an ominous portent of Democratic trouble in a battleground state he won by double digits four years ago. And his idiotic comment about the private sector doing “just fine” solidified his image as being out of touch with the nation’s economic troubles and incapable of responding to the problem with anything but liberal cant. But the president does have a few cards up his sleeve in his battle for re-election. Chief among them is that pollsters consistently show that most Americans find him to be “likable.” As Politico notes, having strong favorability ratings is usually enough to get a candidate re-elected. But what makes this election so interesting is that President Obama’s high personal numbers are combined with other factors such as a horrible economy that normally spell doom to an incumbent.

Voters are still vaguely sympathetic to the president, and that’s a potent electoral factor when combined with all of the advantages that come with being an incumbent. But the trouble with this discussion is that the characterization of Obama as “likable” is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies tremendous charisma or genuine personal affection. What is at work in creating the president’s favorability ratings is nothing like the appeal of a Bill Clinton or a John F. Kennedy or even the mixed feelings many Americans harbored for George W. Bush (or at least did so until Hurricane Katrina, the lingering Iraq War and the spillover from the war on terror made a man who was widely seen as a great guy if an imperfect leader the most unpopular living president). Barack Obama’s popularity is not a function of his personality but the product of the historic nature of his presidency and the willingness of the mainstream media to treat him with a deference they have not shown to any of his predecessors since Kennedy.

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President Obama has had a run of bad luck recently. National tracking polls show he remains in a dead heat with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The result of the Wisconsin recall election was an ominous portent of Democratic trouble in a battleground state he won by double digits four years ago. And his idiotic comment about the private sector doing “just fine” solidified his image as being out of touch with the nation’s economic troubles and incapable of responding to the problem with anything but liberal cant. But the president does have a few cards up his sleeve in his battle for re-election. Chief among them is that pollsters consistently show that most Americans find him to be “likable.” As Politico notes, having strong favorability ratings is usually enough to get a candidate re-elected. But what makes this election so interesting is that President Obama’s high personal numbers are combined with other factors such as a horrible economy that normally spell doom to an incumbent.

Voters are still vaguely sympathetic to the president, and that’s a potent electoral factor when combined with all of the advantages that come with being an incumbent. But the trouble with this discussion is that the characterization of Obama as “likable” is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies tremendous charisma or genuine personal affection. What is at work in creating the president’s favorability ratings is nothing like the appeal of a Bill Clinton or a John F. Kennedy or even the mixed feelings many Americans harbored for George W. Bush (or at least did so until Hurricane Katrina, the lingering Iraq War and the spillover from the war on terror made a man who was widely seen as a great guy if an imperfect leader the most unpopular living president). Barack Obama’s popularity is not a function of his personality but the product of the historic nature of his presidency and the willingness of the mainstream media to treat him with a deference they have not shown to any of his predecessors since Kennedy.

Though Obama clearly thinks of himself as cool, his personality could be better characterized as cold and calculating. Though not incapable of warmth or grace, his primary attribute seems to be thoughtfulness. That is not a bad trait for a president to possess, but it is not the same thing as an ability to connect with ordinary Americans. He might come across as a bit more accessible than Mitt Romney, a man whose personal awkwardness prevents him from exhibiting much of a common touch. But the mass outpouring for the Obama campaign in 2008 that often verged on an outpouring of messianism was not the product of the candidate’s personality.

Instead, the “hope and change” mantra that swept the nation four years ago was the expression of a belief in the idea of racial harmony and our ability to overcome America’s history of racial prejudice and install a new age of harmony and enlightenment. Such a movement cannot be sustained indefinitely, especially when the object of its adoration must adapt to the realities of office and is also shown to be in many respects merely an ordinary garden-variety politician.

But no matter how far short Obama falls of the Olympian expectations his followers had of him, he is always going to be the first African-American president of the United States. As such, he has been and will continue to be graded on a curve that none of the presidents who have come before him enjoyed. Electing him made a lot of Americans, even those who didn’t necessarily agree with him on the issues, feel good about their country and themselves. Throwing him out of office after one term will remove some of those good feelings, and that’s going to ensure he has a fighting chance in November .

Just as important is the media bias in his favor that is a by-product of the historic nature of his presidency. The president and his family are given a “Camelot” treatment that has not been seen or heard since the Kennedys were charming the nation in the early 60s with the willful assistance of an adoring and purposefully blind press corps. That gives Obama an advantage that even the most liberal of his recent predecessors didn’t possess.

But while we should not be deceived by President Obama’s likability ratings in the polls into thinking that he is actually likable in the normal sense of the word, Republicans should not be under the misimpression this will be a negligible factor in the coming election. His historic status and liberal media bias are what has kept his favorability ratings afloat, but they are no less real for being the product of these arbitrary factors. If the economy improves even a little bit and Romney is seen as faltering, this may be enough for him to be re-elected.

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