Politics & Policy

The American Idol Electorate

Holding popularity contests is not the wisest way to select the leader of the free world.

Contrary to the impression that he has so assiduously worked to cultivate, Barack Obama is not a king of either the divine-right or impotent-figurehead variety, but instead the president of a republic. Having grown up in a country that still boasts the last vestiges of a once-potent monarchy, I am reasonably familiar with the role that incumbent sovereigns play in the world’s most popular constitutional arrangement, and aware too of what it takes for a modern potentate to be regarded as a success. In modern Britain, the Queen’s likeability and personality help her no end, whereas her political talent and her personal views do not. In the United States system, likeability is certainly important. But, as they cannot bypass that tricky rise-to-power bit and achieve office simply by being born, aspiring Americans must have other talents if they wish to stay in office.

At least until now, for, in recent years, the public has exhibited instincts that are more often on display in the world’s constitutional monarchies than in America’s radical system. Were he contactable, Dr. Franklin would certainly be pleased to know that, 214 years after the system was grafted onto the messy American Revolution, the United States is still a republic. But he would presumably be less cheered to learn that the electorate currently appears to value the head of state’s ceremonial qualities much more than it does his political skills. The results of polls both recent and distant make difficult reading for the enthusiastic radical, alas.

A CNN/ORC survey conducted between November 18 and November 20 reveals that the American people do not think that Obama is capable of doing his job, nor do they really trust him to try. Less than half of Americans (40 percent) think President Obama can manage the government effectively, the poll shows, while 53 percent said that the phrase “honest and trustworthy” “does not apply” to the president. Meanwhile, 56 percent of the public say that he does not inspire confidence, the very same percentage has noticed that the president does not agree with them on issues that are important to them, and only 44 percent profess to “admire” him. His approval ratings, meanwhile, are hovering around the 40 percent mark — and moving in the wrong direction to boot.

But here’s the kicker: Americans are still fond of him anyway. Seven in ten Americans affirmed in this same poll that they like Barack Obama personally, and slightly more than half agreed with the statement that he “cares about people like you.” We thus seem to be living in a country in which a majority of the people deem the president incapable of managing the government that it is his job to manage; think him untrustworthy; suppose that he doesn’t inspire confidence or admiration; and know full well that he doesn’t agree with them on political issues — and yet still like him quite a lot.

Now, competence and likeability are by no means synonymous virtues, and it is the people’s sacred prerogative to distinguish between traits in any way they wish. Indeed, I feel similarly split about, say, the actor Zach Galifianakis. I do not think that Galifianakis would be especially capable of managing the executive branch of a sprawling federal government, and I’d hesitate before trusting him with my belongings, and yet I have a generally warm feeling toward him. But it all becomes a bit trickier when the person in the scenario is the most powerful man in the world and not merely a figurehead or one-off talent. Popularity contests are all well and good. Until you hold one for the position of commander-in-chief.

Second-term blues being what they are, it is perhaps a touch unfair to turn the screws on Obama simply for falling out of favor with the public. After all, most presidents do. But a quick review of the exit polls from 2012 reveals that Americans felt broadly the same last year when they had the chance to pick a new guy. In November 2012, a majority trusted Obama less than his opponent on the debt, on defense, on taxes, on the economy in general, and on health care. The majority also considered the United States to be “on the wrong track.”

Yet Obama won. Why? Well, largely because Americans liked him more — a lot more. Never mind that people preferred Romney’s political positions; he wasn’t as appealing, nor was he believed to “care” enough about the people. Personally, I find the unavoidably subjective “cares about me” question positively emetic. I can just about accept the public’s contradictory assessments of Bill Clinton, who in 1998 was simultaneously deemed highly competent (75 percent) but deeply dishonest (75 percent). But this? This is more insidious.

Almost certainly, the Obama phenomenon is the product of a recent trend in which the electorate has based its decision on the depressingly aesthetic question of “What sort of American do I want to head up the country?” — or worse, “have a beer with?” — and not on any particular policy or plan. This isn’t a partisan problem but a structural one — if the next Republican is particularly winsome, it is feasible that he could benefit from exactly the same process. But whatever its causes, it’s dangerous. In a country with a small government, picking people because you like them wouldn’t matter so much, but when the government is out of control, it matters an awful lot when the guy you agree with politically is not the guy you like as a person and whom you vote for.

“The American head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps,” the disgraced British writer and fantasist Johann Hari once quipped, whereas “the British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps.” Those of us who would like to see the presidency returned to its more modest roots know deep down that our hopes are futile, but this distinction has long been an important one. One can certainly lament that Obama’s tendency to behave like an emperor while affecting to be a bewildered outsider has moved the presidency in an increasingly imperial direction. But, in a republic, it’s the people who are the ultimate check and architect, and if they are hard at work changing the game as well, then who can blame the man on the throne?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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