From Elizabeth Warren to Rick Perry, is it good to be bullish?


From Elizabeth Warren to GOP candidates to President Obama, political language seems to be heating up. Is that a good thing? (ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS)

For leaders, this question remains: Is becoming more bullish a good idea? Like seemingly all things related to leadership, it depends. Taking on a certain level of forcefulness, aggression and ire can make one appear principled, resolute and tenacious. But do it to the point of rudeness, or with any hint of desperation, and that same intensity can quickly turn on its head, making the speaker look unseasoned, undiplomatic or unprofessional.

Consider last night’s debates, for one. On several occasions, Mitt Romney’s efforts to respond to an opponent’s attacks became shouting matches, with Rick Santorum or Rick Perry talking over his response in ways that made them appear by turns uncivil or even boorish. While some pundits thought the clashes made Romney look flustered, or showed an awakening for Gov. Perry after bad showings at the last debates, I thought Romney came off again looking like the adult in the room. Debates are fierce, and voters expect to see plenty of criticism and harsh words. But they also expect a certain amount of professional behavior in a future president, not rudeness that pushes the limits of the rules.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren’s so-called “fighting words” (though the basis for some pretty funny satire) are somehow held apart from other campaign rhetoric. She’s been called “too divisive,” an “ideological flame-thrower,” and a contributor to “class warfare,” but her anger also feels genuine and taps into many of the feelings shared by voters. Because this is a similar tone she’s always used, and because it mirrors what other people feel, as one political historian told the Times, “she’s picking up and trading on anger that’s already out there.”

The appropriateness of Obama’s newly combative tone is harder to sort out, however. It may help him with his liberal base to some extent. And it may do something to redirect the idea that his presidency has been all negotiation and little standing firm. But the key word here is “newly.” One gets the sense that such contentiousness does not come easily to the president, and that the cool, pragmatic, hope-for-bipartisanship demeanor is his natural state.

While the country may seem polarized to the point of no return, I’m not so sure. I continue to believe that average voters want their leaders to be unflappable, diplomatic and bipartisan, and that they are looking, most of all, for someone who rises above the fray, albeit with a spine of steel. A combative tone isn’t necessarily at odds with that ideal leader, as long as the forcefulness feels genuine, isn’t rude, and doesn’t feel like a complete 180 from the approach taken before. In today’s political landscape, a certain number of “fighting words” are expected. The ones who win by using them, however, will be the adults in the room.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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