Friday, May 23, 2008

Secret surface

Everyone's talking about this shot of Obama with Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Post-American World, in hand.

I was glad to see this, since I read this distillation of the book the other day, and it's the kind of thing I want my president to be reading.

I hope to do a post about Zakaria's geopolitical thesis soon, but first I have to point out that Obama looks so cool! He looks like his own Secret Service agent.

"Ah, yes, Obama's appeal is superficial. McCain might have less charisma, but he's the more serious candidate."

I wonder what percentage of the people who have that response supported Ronald Reagan, who would not have ended up being President if he hadn't started out as a dashing Hollywood actor.

I actually think McCain is decidedly less serious than Obama when it comes to domestic and foreign policy. But that's a whole other blog post.

There's a tendency to assume that if a candidate gets high marks in some superficial area, then surely this must be offset by deficiencies in more substantive areas. As Matthew Yglesias has observed, people seem to subconsciously adhere to the "Law of Conservation of Virtues." The supermodel must be dumb. The smartest kid in the class must wear dorky glasses and have no social skills. The candidate who gives inspiring speeches must be weak on policy.

Once you put it like that, it becomes transparently irrational: of course Obama's charisma is independent of his strengths and weaknesses on the merits.

But I would go further. The coolness factor matters. Coolness, likability, charisma, and even sex appeal are legitimate reasons to vote for someone for president.

A candidate who's more personally appealing will be more likely to hold onto popularity as president, which will tend to make them more effective at enacting their agenda. If the president is more appealing for admittedly superficial reasons, that should apply abroad too, and we should want the world to have a positive attitude toward us (all other things being equal). [UPDATE: Here's some statistical and anecdotal evidence that Obamamania is sweeping Europe. And he's "becoming an international phenomenon."] Whether the president is liked by a lot of people matters, and someone who's suave and attractive has an advantage when it comes to being well-liked.

We're not supposed to admit that this does matter. We're supposed to believe that "what the voters really care about are the issues." And so while the pundits are willing to analyze relatively clear-cut demographic factors (race, gender, age), you rarely hear them talk about the more nebulous quality of attractiveness, even when it's obviously important.

When Tommy Thompson (my former governor) ran for the Republican nomination, the few commentators who bothered to even talk about him would struggle to articulate what exactly was the problem with his foundering campaign. Based on sheer substance and experience, he could have been a very strong candidate. But all you had to do is watch him for 10 seconds in one of the debates, and you'd see -- and hear -- why he couldn't make it.

My mom has taken a lot of criticism for breaking this taboo and talking about the candidates' more superficial qualities. People can be surprisingly willing to vehemently insist that something doesn't matter at all, when it clearly does matter.

Here was her reaction while watching one of the Democratic debates (she hasn't endorsed any candidate):

You know, Obama can be a rather cool character. Midway through the debate, I found myself practicing an impersonation of him. Not his speech, but his clasped hands on the table, his head turned sideways, chin up, lips pursed in a grin, his eyes looking down onto the hapless soul who imagines she could unsettle him in the slightest degree.
It's become a cliche to lament that the media is obsessed with trivialities in the presidential race and should focus on the issues instead. But if they would talk more about the actual importance of appearance, this would have the twofold advantage of being more honest and more enticing to readers/viewers. If you can get more people to pay attention to a presidential election, that's a good thing for democracy.

I know there's a huge gender angle to this -- I plan to do a whole other post about Hillary Clinton in this context. [UPDATE: Here it is.] But, of course, most candidates are men, and most commentators are men, and men tend to be hesitant to talk about the attractiveness of other men. And female commentators have obvious reasons for not publicly gushing over attractive men.

But face it: the results of the democratic process over the years are clear. JFK, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush -- each had his own distinctive sex appeal. Can anyone say with a straight face that these men were chosen for the job purely based on their resumes and policy positions?

Nixon, Carter, and George H.W. Bush were, of course, weaker in this regard. I wasn't in existence during the Nixon or Carter administrations, and I had pretty minimal political consciousness for the Bush administration, but I have to imagine that these presidents' relative unattractiveness -- not just in the physical sense, but also demeanor, particularly in Bush Sr.'s case -- played to their weaknesses. Notice that Carter and Bush were both defeated by more charismatic challengers.

As I write this, I almost feel embarrassed to be making an argument about something that should be so uncontroversial. But since even references to Hillary Clinton's voice and attire are routinely presented as evidence of sexism, I think it's worth pointing out that the candidates' looks, voice, style, and charisma always matter.

Everyone talks about Obama's skin color, but what about McCain's ghostly, albino-like skin?

My theory of this general election is that if you have one candidate who's 47, 6'1", and has a full head of dark hair, and another candidate who's 72, 5'7", and bald with thin white hair, it's predictable who will win. I wish this didn't matter at all and everyone just made perfectly rational decisions based on substantive issues. And we won't know if this factor ends up being decisive. But I think we'll know that it mattered.

UPDATE: My mom links to this post and looks at other presidential candidates who, like Obama holding The Post-American World, have worn sunglasses.

UPDATE: At least McCain is doing what he can in the sex appeal department.


summer anne burton said...

I was talking about this recently. I don't have much to say other than that I completely agree. It does matter. The image I have in my head of Barack Obama interacting: with 'ordinary' americans, with other politicians, and with the leaders of other countries is a powerful one. Charm and grace lead to comfort and trust. My mom and I were driving around today and she remarked about how much she is put-off by HRC's voice. I told her that jokes or complaints about her 'shrillness' have been a point of contention re: sexism in the primary and she replied quickly that it was 'silly' to pretend to ignore such factors. I agree. With you and my mom. :)

Peter Hoh said...

Like the Onion said, this election will be decided by bullshit. But if the right person wins for bullshit reasons, I'll take it.