Presidential Campaign

Likability shouldn’t matter when electing a president

George Bush, Golf

When the Samuel Adams beer brand polled voters in 2000 and found that more preferred drinking a beer with then-Republican nominee George W. Bush than Democratic nominee Al Gore, the political media found a new criterion to determine who should sit in the Oval Office: likability.

Four years later, a Zogby poll of independent voters found that 57 percent would rather quaff a brew with then-President Bush over his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, a veritable beer landslide.

{mosads}It’s now routine for the scribbling pens and chattering class to pose the beer question or a variation thereof, and, based on a candidate’s perceived likability and relatability, they create a self-fulfilling narrative of electability.

If a candidate is warm and likable, these pundits say, Americans will be more inclined to vote for him or her. But woe to any politician who seems unable to kiss babies with ease, feel someone’s pain, look relaxed on television or down a beer comfortably.

For the candidate deemed “unlikable” by the press, it’s an uphill battle to reverse the narrative. It gets compounded by polls that reflect the dominant media storyline, which then lead to new stories about the candidate’s likability deficit. That then creates a vicious cycle of negative framing, making it increasingly difficult for the candidate to gain traction.

The problem is that likability is, and should be, irrelevant in electing a president. How a candidate makes us feel is insignificant compared to what he or she does as president.

George W. Bush may have been likable, but his war in Iraq weakened America’s standing, demoralized our troops and destabilized the Middle East — and he presided over an economic collapse from which we are still recovering today.

And though he’s been out of office almost seven years, millennials will live much of their adult lives with his Supreme Court appointments, who have been instrumental in weakening the Voting Rights Act, overturning gun control laws and giving deep-pocketed donors a disproportionate say in our elections.

Elections have consequences, and they have nothing to do with likability.

It’s not at all clear that two of our greatest presidents, the introspective Abraham Lincoln or the hyperkinetic Theodore Roosevelt, would have fared well in a television era that favors warm and endearing qualities.

Pundits would have labeled Lincoln brooding and wondered if Roosevelt’s high-pitched voice turned off voters. Lincoln certainly wouldn’t have won the beer ballot.

In fact, it’s not even actual likability we’re judging: It’s the appearance of likability as mediated by the television screen.

President Reagan came off as an avuncular and reassuring presence in our living rooms, but according to a recent biography by the historian H.W. Brands, “he was not a warm person, but he seemed to be, which in politics is more important.”

And his perceived likability had nothing to do with his administration’s economic policies, Supreme Court nominations, aversion to environmental regulation, resistance to civil rights legislation, delayed response to AIDS, military buildup, approach to the Soviet Union, or the arms-for-hostages deal that led to the Iran-Contra affair.

Today, it’s Hillary Clinton whose public persona has been deemed “unlikable.” The dominant media narrative portrays her as calculating and manipulative, devoid of warmth and spontaneity. News stories routinely show images of her in sunglasses looking down at a Blackberry, which reinforce this sinister, unlikable frame. Voters “just don’t connect with you,” said “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. “They might not like you.”

It doesn’t really matter if, in private, according to those who know her, she comes off as engaging, warm and even playful — in other words, likable. It’s even a little sad that she feels such a need to prove her likability in public.

To be sure, character does indeed count when we elect a president. But character and likability are not the same. Character involves the ability to evaluate evidence clinically and then to make decisions that may be informed by one’s values but never veer from the best interests of our country. Think of Lincoln.

In the long run, we don’t end up living with a president’s likability. We end up living with the decisions he or she makes when choosing Supreme Court justices, addressing environmental challenges, dealing with economic inequities, opting to use force overseas, negotiating with foreign governments and confronting the ongoing repercussions of our nation’s racial history.

Shame on us if we let likability override consequence. And yes, let’s have a beer on that.

Steinhorn is a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. His expertise includes American politics, culture and media, strategic communication, the presidency, race relations, the 1960s and recent American history. He is author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. He is the founding editor of PunditWire, where political speechwriters comment on the news. Before joining the American University faculty, he spent 15 years as a political consultant and speechwriter.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign Al Gore campaign George W. Bush Hillary Clinton John Kerry likability likable Ronald Reagan Samuel Adams beer

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