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.


It seems to me that people in America make the universal mistake of believing introverts "don't like people". This is totally incorrect. Being one myself, I know that introverts as a rule DO LIKE PEOPLE. They simply are more prone to tuning in to a few very closely and to connect to them well, whereas extroverts tune in to tons of people and actually connect with very few on more than a extremely superficial level. I have watched extroverts talking to each other both verbalizing at the same time, and somehow or other getting some meat form the conversation. An introvert would listen and not talk until the other person is done. Which is why extroverts talk all over introverts, and introverts may seem standoffish, because they are rarely talking. Emotions and feelings that aren't broadcast all over the place are nonetheless real. Watch how Obama connects to kids. Kids still listen to people, and they love people who actually listen to them (introvert adults!)

I'll differ from Carolannie's assessment...

I think that it's a matter of how people energize and recharge. For an extrovert like Clinton, working a room is energizing - it's harder to be alone with his thoughts. For an introvert, working a room is draining - and he recharges when he gets some quiet time.

Both types of person can like people. Both types can engage in meaty conversation (although extroverts tend to be better at small talk by virtue both of practice and of being inclined to enjoy that type of interaction).

A socially skilled extrovert like Clinton does an amazing job making people he encounters feel like they are important. Read, for example, Richard Cohen's recent whinge about President Obama - to me it reads as, "He doesn't make me feel important enough, so I want a different President."

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