Politicians Who Don't Like People

New York magazine's John Heilmann makes an interesting point about Barack Obama in this interview (via Andrew Sullivan):

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.

KC: Obama doesn’t like people?

JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’ve known the guy since 1988. He’s not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He’s not a backslapper and he’s not an arm-twister. He’s a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities. He’s incredibly intelligent, but he’s not a guy who’s ever had a Bill Clinton-like network around him. He’s not the guy up late at night working the speed dial calling mayors, calling governors, calling CEOs.

Despite the phrase "doesn't like people," Heilmann isn't saying that Obama is some kind of misanthrope; there's a whole spectrum of introversion and extroversion. You can like people well enough but get tired of pretending to be terribly interested in all 200 of them your job requires you to meet every day. But let's assume this is a reasonably accurate assessment. Does it matter? You can look at Clinton and say his appetite for schmoozing is in part what made him successful. On the other hand, George W. Bush is a people person too. There's a famous story about him from when he was pledging DKE in college, and one day they asked the pledges to name as many of their group as they could. Most could only come up with five or six names, but George named all 55 pledges. But you know who else didn't really like people? Ronald Reagan. He was dynamite in front of an audience, but had few friends and was estranged from some of his own kids. And come to think of it, an unusual number of people who have lost presidential campaigns in recent years (Kerry, Gore, Dole, Dukakis) were skilled at some aspects of politics but obviously tolerated the endless fundraisers and handshaking without actually enjoying them. So I think Heilmann is wrong that there aren't many politicians who get very far if they dislike both people and politics.

Mitt Romney, interestingly enough, doesn't really like people but tries to pretend that he's more like Clinton than like Obama. I think this is part of what's so grating about Romney. It isn't just that he's awkward at all the glad-handing politicians have to do. Lots of us (myself included) wouldn't be any good at that. It's that he's awkward at it but thinks he's convincing us that he loves it. Just can't wait to get to the next fish fry to sit down and shoot the breeze with the folks. This is probably my favorite Romney video of all time, from his 1994 run for Senate. He comes into a restaurant, looks around at a rather grim collection of elderly diners just trying to have a meal, and says loudly to no one in particular, "My goodness! What's going on here today? Look at this! This is terrific!" It's beyond painful:

It does seem that a love of people can be very helpful in becoming president, but it's far less important once you get to be president. As Heilmann notes, members of Congress were used to getting massaged by Clinton, and they don't get that treatment from Obama. But would anything in his term have gone better if he had spent more time on that? Legislatively, Obama has been pretty darn successful. He succeeded in one big area where Clinton failed (health care reform). And even Clinton couldn't have convinced today's Republicans to be any less obstructionist than they have been.

Maybe this shows the danger of looking at past presidents' personalities and extrapolating to general principles about what makes for a successful presidency.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
Advertisement