Obama cries, Romney backs his staff and the end finally hits an authentic note

November 9, 2012

It’s all over but the shouting.

Still, amid all the post-election hand-wringing, all the questions about what went wrong for Republicans and baffling remarks from Karl Rove that Barack Obama won by “suppressing the vote,” we’ve seen glimpses emerge of both President Obama and Mitt Romney that couldn’t differ more from what voters saw during much of the campaign.

The viciously negative tone of this year’s presidential race left us with few opportunities to view the magnanimity and selflessness each man has showed, if not to each other than to his staff, in recent days. In addition, the cool and often remote personalities of both men, who have been described as everything from professorial and aloof to stiff and robotic, gave us few impressions of the sort of warm, authentic humanity many people look for in their leaders.

But the emotions that surround an election’s end have a way of pulling off the campaign armor. The new video of the president speaking to his staffers in Chicago Wednesday is moving because he cried, yes. This is a president who has been openly criticized for not showing more emotion, and there he was wiping away tears as he thanked the people who’ve worked for him.

What was perhaps even more touching than the tears, however, were the humble sentiments he shared. In comparing their work to what he did during his community organizing days, he said “I come here and I look at all of you and what comes to mind is not that you guys actually remind me of myself. It’s the fact that you are so much better than I was in so many ways.”

He told the assembled group of young staffers that “the most important thing you need to know is your journey’s just beginning. You’re just starting. Whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come.” It’s almost hard to remember this is the president of the United States speaking.

Meanwhile, several stories have recounted a post-election breakfast in which Romney, frustrated, wistful and humble, told an investor on his national finance committee in attendance that he would not be heading out on any getaways immediately. “Uh, I’m going to be really busy,” the supporter said Romney told him. “I have 400 people to get great jobs for.”

No matter how many times his surrogates may have tried to tell stories of Romney’s generosity, no matter how much the GOP convention may have been an effort to “humanize” the candidate, nothing speaks louder than an off-the-cuff moment like that, which shows the responsibility he feels for the people who did so much for him.

Maybe there’s just something about the end of a campaign that brings out leaders’ most authentic natures. Maybe it’s simply that we see them more because the gatekeepers and advisers and spokesmen are guarding them less, and more willing to share when the stakes are no longer so high. And there’s no doubt that the emotions surrounding them—whether they are ones of triumph or of loss—have a way of forcing the defenses and the poll-tested messages to fall away. It’s just too bad we don’t see more of these moments during the campaign.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

A tale of two Obama victory speeches

What makes an excellent president

With Elizabeth Warren’s Senate win and others, a new Year of the Woman?

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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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