In politics, a candidate’s identity is a contest of contending images, one from which not even the president is excused. Just turn on the television. Over the last two weeks, you could see President Obama saluting the troops at Bagram Airfield, discussing same-sex marriage, or boogieing down with Ellen at a commercial break.
The final image was courtesy of an attack ad recently released by American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s Super PAC. Pointedly titled “Cool,” the ad highlights President Obama at his most amiable and hip — sporting shades, slow-jamming with Jimmy Fallon — and juxtaposes those moments with images of a still struggling economy.
The aim of the ad is two-fold: To diminish Mr. Obama’s stature and accomplishments by dismissing him as “cool,” and to insinuate that the country’s problems are due to the casual disregard of a president more concerned with celebrity than the common good.
Putting aside the cheap shots, the ad raises an interesting question: Is celebrity status really a leadership liability?
The McCain campaign thought so. In 2008, it aired a series of “celebrity” ads from which American Crossroads seems to have drawn inspiration. The first of them began by lumping in then Senator Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton before a voiceover ominously intoned: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world.”
At the time, the ads were regarded as one of the more effective attacks by the McCain campaign.
But something has changed in four years: Barack Obama is no longer a charismatic leader, not in the traditional sense. He is a leader who is charismatic, and that makes all the difference.
Four years ago, Mr. Obama ran a campaign predicated on the incandescent quality of personal charisma. A remarkable biography, a compelling vision, a distinctive voice — these are hallmarks of a charismatic leader. They create the kind of relationship between leaders and followers that sociologist Max Weber described as one of “complete personal devotion to the possessor of the quality, arising out of enthusiasm, or of despair and hope.”
Because of their emotional charge, these leader-follower relationships are a lot like first love: They are highly combustible and have the permanence of spring. At the same time, because charismatic leaders stake their claim to authority not on demonstrated accomplishments but on a cultivated faith — in themselves and, by extension, in the hope and change they seem to embody — they are exceedingly vulnerable to personal attacks. In literature, the charismatic leader is most often a conman whose true identity is unmasked in the final scene.
If they weren’t attacking the personal integrity of candidate Obama, the McCain campaign’s “celebrity” ads were certainly suggesting that the faith so many Americans had in this charismatic leader was rather flimsy, particularly given the office for which he was campaigning.
But unlike candidate Obama, President Obama now has a legacy of accomplishment to contend with. No matter if his administration has lived up to your hopes, exceeded your fears, or landed somewhere in between, it’s a relationship to the president founded not on faith alone but on the facts of his performance.
In turn, to dismiss President Obama in 2012 as merely a celebrity seems lame and unconvincing, akin to dismissing President Reagan in 1984 as little more than a Hollywood star. It dodges both the relevance and reality of significant policy differences while acknowledging the personal charisma that makes the one candidate so compelling.
To grant that someone is enormously likeable is to grant quite a lot. It also tends to personalize the presidential race, shifting it in a direction that is ill advised for Republicans. Mitt Romney may be a decent, capable man, but he is woefully outmatched when it comes to sharing the personal anecdotes that give life to one’s vision for the country. Case in point: A recent Gallup poll gauged the likeability of both candidates and showed a 29-point spread in favor of Obama.
Likeability is not necessarily the last word in presidential elections, but it is a bipartisan interest. Americans have to live with their presidents, and they prefer to like and admire them, whatever their political differences may be. Being “too cool” can be a liability. But much like being “too smart” or “too beautiful,” it’s a welcome problem, indeed.
John Paul Rollert teaches leadership at the Harvard Extension School.
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