What You Should Think About Charisma

“I think he has a warm engaging personality. . . but you know, the Presidency is more than just a popularity contest.”

–Al Gore regarding George W. Bush

As I roam the Internet’s vast array of comments regarding last night’s New Hampshire primaries, I find my thoughts returning again and again to a disconnect I have yet to see others highlight. A strong theme in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be that Sen. Barack Obama is running more on charisma than substance. Yet the favorable result her campaign achieved last night occurred on a day when no story seemed to generate more press than her own emotional outreach.

Prior to the tearless moment many described as “crying,” Sen. Clinton seemed almost averse to emotional appeals. The role of students willing to educate themselves about the caucus process was clearly crucial in Iowa, but it might be fairly argued that Sen. Obama was running a campaign powered by hope. Fear, the other side of that same psychological coin, seems to be at the heart of Sen. Clinton’s distinctively emotional message. In those few utterances, she showed solidarity with the millions of other Americans profoundly troubled and saddened by the behavior of the sitting administration.

Rationally, the message should have little bearing on a Democratic primary contest. To be more precise, it should work to her slight disadvantage. From security policy to civil rights to international relations, Sen. Clinton is a good deal closer to President Bush than any of her top few rivals. People who are deeply concerned that this nation has traveled far along an unhealthy course ought to be at least a little bit wary of anyone so quick to support militarism, secret police, unrestricted free trade, etc. Veering away from Sen. Obama, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Kucinich, et al. in favor of Sen. Clinton actually weakens political condemnation of the status quo.

On the other hand, very few people vote purely on detailed knowledge and considered contemplation of specific policy positions. Though a broad range exists, practically every vote cast is influenced by some blend of political analysis with the human factor. Unlike the “make sure you get at least one good laugh out at every press event” day in the Clinton campaign, this display of human feeling registered as genuine.

No doubt it was, at least to some degree. In the debate about the authenticity of her emotions, most commentators seem to take an extreme position. Sensible folks mostly lean toward the “it couldn’t possibly have been staged” view while the dittohead legion is quick to dismiss the moment as entirely insincere. It is as if all these people so intent on analyzing political theater lack any understanding of actual theatrics.

While some performers will falsify even the most powerful of emotions, others draw upon their own real feelings to act out moments of extreme sorrow or bliss. In my estimation, the striking of a melancholy chord was deliberate, yet this display was accomplished by drawing upon an entirely genuine and personal anxiety fueled by thoughts of continuity in the direction of American political progress. After all, who needs to dwell on thoughts of a deceased pet or lost love to reach a blue mood when there are thousands of deceased soldiers, tens of thousands of deceased Iraqis, and America’s lost credibility to inspire dark reflections?

Just as people may be drawn to Barack Obama’s upbeat appeals to the better angels of Americans’ natures, it is hard to resist feeling sympathy at the sight of Hillary Clinton’s passionate concern about the flow of recent history. She faces a peculiar challenge — strength is a virtue among leaders, but a woman who fails to show any hint of emotional vulnerability appears unusual in a displeasing way. The vulnerability she displayed was perfectly understandable. Even so, it managed to generate a visceral appeal that echoed constantly through the narrow channels of mainstream media coverage.

I believe it would be irrational to try and reduce voting decisions to a pure calculus of political positions. Phenomena like personality and affect have bearing on job performance, most especially when the job involves grappling with weighty issues and responding to crisis situations. I do not wish to separate myself from the chorus of voices bemoaning the lack of political expertise most Americans take with them to the polls. Still, it is worth clarifying that character also has a vital role to play in the choices expressed in those particular booths.

In the end this primary process may merit a place of note in the political history of the 21st century. Just as the current President’s abuses of power may well be much more egregious than those of Richard Nixon, the public desire for political change may also be greater than it was in 1974. After all, the 2006 legislative elections clearly did not amount to a political reckoning comparable to Nixon’s resignation. Barring a sudden sea change, the next President of the United States will be selected by the Democratic Party.

For now, the top two contenders are both articulate and capable individuals with impressive public service achievements yet relatively little experience holding elective offices of their own. As voters react to blends of policies and personality, Senators Clinton and Obama will each make many efforts to inspire support from the American people. For a relatively young candidate emergent from an unusual background and confronted by residual racism in a nation that embraced a “separate but equal” doctrine up through the 1950s, these efforts will tend to involve straightforward appeals to hope for a better tomorrow. For a candidate emergent from decidedly conventional background and confronted by gender stereotypes that remain strong even in the most progressive nations, the task of generating enthusiasm from supporters is much more complex.

In the end, this effort to connect with the American people is only the beginning of a process the winner will be obliged to continue throughout his or her term(s) of service. A head of state must do more than raise a constructive voice in setting a nation’s policy agenda. Such leaders also must speak out effectively in many other contexts. From mourning in the aftermath of national tragedy to rallying support for significant reforms to speaking authoritatively to foreign leaders, we all benefit from a President’s ability to communicate with emotional force and integrity.

Voters have a civic duty to do much more than respond to gut feelings, but those feelings are not without value. Between the nature of the process and the shallowness of the media, the next three hundred days are likely to be thick with efforts to increase levels of public goodwill generated by political candidates’ force of personality. With a confluence of planning and spontaneity, the personal charisma that follows from these efforts will have much to do with selecting and defining the next leader of the United States of America.

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One Response to What You Should Think About Charisma

  1. Demonweed says:

    Here is yet another editorial note. A break for the holidays is probably nothing out of the ordinary for even the most prolific political bloggers. However, my break will extend at least through the 15th of the month, as I am presently traveling. After one reader chastised me for letting the project go (and while my kind and beautiful hostess is focused on her own work for the day) I thought I might go ahead and post my first entry from the West Coast. I may not do much additional writing or responding to comments until I am again ensconced in less scenic surroundings, but hopefully this essay establishes that there is life left in What You Should Think.

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