As Anne Bancroft said in the movie G.I. Jane, “In Washington you can do about anything you want to as long as you are popular.” Popularity for politicos tends to flow from likeability and credibility. Presidents and Presidential contenders are particularly dependent on their likeability and credibility for success. Ironically these traits also serve as significant constraints for White House aspirants. Politicians are forced to consider what is palatable as well as what must be done.
Some politicians are likeable but not credible. Bill Clinton is a perfect case in point. He is probably the most skilled politician of the current generation. Only a likeable person could survive the many scandals of his Administration. A colleague of mine met Clinton at a reception in Washington. My friend said that Clinton controls any room he enters. This friend is no Democrat but he came away from his encounter with Clinton liking the man. Unfortunately Clinton looked into the camera and lied to the American people. Clintonites call this compartmentalization. This is political speak for rationalization. Clinton squandered his credibility and his Presidential legacy in the process.
Other politicians are credible but not likeable. George W. Bush occupied the White House for eight years without a hint of scandal. Although some have tried to portray the controversy over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction as an example of lying, most Americans acknowledge that Bush acted on the intelligence information available. Even some of Bush’s most vocal critics thought Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Unfortunately for President Bush a lot of Americans did not like him. The well for Bush was poisoned by a combination of Bush v Gore and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush legacy is yet to play out. The widely ridiculed Bush Doctrine may yet prove prescient. This would further enhance Bush’s credibility. Many Americans would still not like him, no matter what.
President Obama is popular as a person with most Americans. He is likeable, just ask the non-partisan journalists who fawn all over him. Obama’s problem is on the credibility front. Obama took office riding high in the polls but with sparse policy making experience and no executive experience. He now has a record to defend if he is to earn a second term. This will be difficult.
Obama’s soaring rhetoric and his actual accomplishments do not match up well. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Center was to be closed in his first year in office. Wrong. Immigration reform legislation was to have been brought up during Obama’s first year in office. Wrong. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were to expire at the end of 2010. Wrong. These are but a few examples of the difference between governing and making speeches.
Obama delivered on his promise to escalate the (good) war in Afghanistan and to reduce the American troop foot print in Iraq. Obamacare was passed by hook and crook. Its constitutionality remains in question. The Stimulus Bill passed and has been widely panned as a budget busting boondoggle.
Viewership for Obama’s televised addresses has declined since 2009. This is an alarming trend for a politician whose rhetorical skills represent a large part of his supposed portfolio. It is increasingly hard to get people to listen to you when they do not believe what you are saying.
There is ample time for Obama to right the ship of state before he has to face the voters again. However, he will have to make the adjustments on the basis of cooperation rather than coercion. Obama is now constrained by a Republican House and with fewer Democrats in the Senate. He also faces a looming election. Obama is no longer an unknown. He has a record which his opponents will use as a club against him. Assuming the Republicans field a suitable candidate, Obama is likely to be a likeable but not very credible one-term President who squandered opportunities for the sake of ideology. Ideology may prove to be his ultimate constraint.