Friday, April 24, 2015

Do the Personal Qualities of a President Matter?

One of my favorite things is when people bust up conventional wisdom. That's exactly what Paul Waldman did with an article title: Sincerity is Overrated.
You don't need a president who's sincere, you just need one who'll do the things you want.
Even though President Obama's incredible integrity is something I admire most about him, I think Waldman has a point. And in the process of talking about that, he busts up some more conventional wisdom.
As we know well, presidents tend to keep the vast majority of the promises they make while campaigning, and most of those they don't keep are merely the ones they tried and failed to do. The actual number of broken promises, a la "Read my lips: no new taxes" is incredibly small. If a candidate says he's going to do something, he's probably going to at least try to do it. This is particularly true when the thing he's proposing is of vital importance to his party. And it's true even if it was something he wasn't all that enthusiastic about, but adopted out of political opportunism.
I actually don't think that is something we know well. The idea that all politicians are liars and break their promises is pretty pervasive. But for the most part, I think Waldman is right.

So if presidents at least attempt to do what they promise while campaigning, is it true that their personal qualities don't matter? Perhaps not as much as we think.

But there are some ways in which a president's personality affects us all beyond the promises they make. Here's how. Did candidate George W. Bush make any promises about what he would do after a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Did he make any promises about what he would do when a category 5 hurricane blew through the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed the levees around New Orleans? Did candidate Barack Obama make any promises about what he would do when the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East? Or when a BP oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico?

The truth is that an awful lot of what makes or breaks a presidency is unpredictable at the time candidates are running for the office. How someone reacts to those situations is at least as important (perhaps more so) than what they promise to do.

When the unexpected happens, it is a candidate's personality that drives how they will respond. I would agree that sincerity might not be the most important thing in those situations. But, as was the case with Bush, a knee-jerk reaction focused on revenge turned out to be a pretty big liability after 9/11. That's why the personal qualities of a president matter.


  1. I'm pretty sure Bush did promise to invade Iraq while he was campaigning, so 9/11 was just the excuse he needed to accomplish it. Given the way you appear to be defining sincerity, no...a candidate doesn't need it. Authenticity, on the other hand, is a big plus. We may not like Bush or what he did in office, but he was authentically himself on the campaign trail. He still is. President Obama is authentic. Hillary? Not so much.

    1. No, Bush did not promise to invade Iraq during his campaign. As a matter of fact, he campaigned on a more constrained foreign policy. All of that changed after 9/11.

    2. Hillary is guarded because she has to be because of the constant hurricane of the noise machine. Charlie Pierre says it much better than I do:

  2. Obama voted for Telecomm immunity. After that, nothing he has done has been unexpected.