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Whether you like it or not, liking a politician is crucial
GREAT PERSONALITY: With the US economy floundering, Barack Obama's best bet of winning in November is his sheer personality
THE most recent Gallup poll has United States President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a dead heat. Americans are split down the middle with 46 per cent of voters saying they would vote for Obama and another 46 per cent saying they will vote for Romney.
While it is too early in the election cycle for any solid predictor on who will win come November -- Kerry would lead Bush during this same period, as Carter would against Reagan -- these numbers, while proving little else, have this presidential election down as being one of the closest in history.
The one thing that Obama has to his advantage is that he is the more likable candidate. A poll conducted last month finds registered voters nearly twice as likely to pick Obama as the more likable candidate over Romney. Obama's 60 per cent to 31 per cent lead over Romney has many political pundits wondering just what likability means in a presidential election.
Likability has played a crucial role in recent elections with the more favourable candidate often coming out victorious. Reagan would defeat Carter. Clinton would beat George H. W. Bush. And George W. Bush would just about edge out both Al Gore and John Kerry. While gauging likability isn't in any way a precise science, it has proven to be more than just a threshold factor. It isn't enough for a candidate to be tolerated. A candidate needs to be liked. You can blame TV pioneer Philo Farnsworth for that. It was all his fault. It was all because of television. It would forever change the way elections are run. It would usher in the age of the manicured candidate, carefully crafted to not just play the part but also sound like and look the part.
Former US president John F. Kennedy was the first to figure it out. That politics at this level had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with personality. Popularity and perception would become the order of the day. Elections would be about image and charisma. It would be about whether you were liked. As a candidate. As a person.
The problem with the Kennedy phenomenon is that it would be short-lived and we had no way of discerning if the cult of personality would result in a transformative presidency. Fast forward 20 years to Reagan. Then again to Clinton, to George W. Bush and to Obama. All individuals with personalities so strong, so charismatic, so irresistible that even those with drastically differing ideologies would be drawn to their side and their style of politics.
Image was now paramount in politics. Gerald Ford will forever be perceived as a clumsy oaf thanks to news footage of him tripping over a step on Air Force One. Carter would be remembered as the weak one following that televised speech where he appeared in a sweater, in front of a fireplace, looking meek and, God forbid, defeated. Could the population at large bring themselves to like a president who was graceless? How about one who appeared frail? Feeble even?
One cannot overemphasise the importance of being liked in politics. It allows for an entirely different conversation. The politician who is liked is able to connect with his electorate in a far more intimate manner.
And ideology suddenly plays second fiddle to charm. And politics suddenly becomes flexible in the face of personality.
Four years ago, it was a combination of the candidate's cult of personality and the tragedy that was eight years of George W. Bush that led to the American people electing Obama president. For Obama, it was a strategy that didn't just capture the imaginations of Americans, but of everyone, everywhere. You could ask anyone outside America what the last presidential election was about and the answer wasn't the economy, or Roe v Wade, or immigration, or even Iraq. The answer was always: Obama. In fact, it is something that the president is counting on to carry him through yet another election season.
With the economy still floundering, with an electorate that is far more jaded than they were four years ago, with a political system that is gridlocked, Obama has to rely on the sheer force of his personality to convince the people to give him four more years.