Recently President Obama received widespread praise from both sides of the political aisle. But it was not because he made a key compromise with Republican leaders or stepped outside of his party’s line. Rather, a brief but heartening exchange with 26-year-old deaf college student Stephon Williams in which Obama responded to him by signing “Thank You” reaffirmed that – even if he was busy mulling over economic policy and poll numbers – POTUS was in fact a human and not a robot, as Rush Limbaugh once claimed.
Despite the fact that there were a-million-and-one other issues our world faced that day — including the possibility of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, brutal treatment of Syrian civilians, and the usual worries over the global economy, — the media loved the story, and so did the public (or at least Yahoo commenters did). The details of the story may not have been important by themselves, but this is not to suggest that they did not have significant political ramifications. American voters place special emphasis on politicians’ personalities. So winning or losing the presidency can often be a matter of making the right gestures and striking the correct tone.
One needs look no farther than the 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy for proof that a candidate’s projected image carries political weight. When asked who they thought had won the debate, those who listened to it on the radio answered Nixon, while those watching it on television answered Kennedy.
For those with a TV, Kennedy’s good looks and self-assured composure were not a superficial footnote, but a determining factor in choosing the next leader of the free world. Nixon may have been smart, but by choosing to wear no make-up, he placed himself at a disadvantage.
Nixon eventually learned from his mistake. Eight years later, the sunken-jowled, repeat presidential contender made a cameo appearance on the popular comedy show, “Laugh-In.” Throughout the ’80s, Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and Dixon, Illinois native, used a folksy demeanor and frank sense of humor to charm the press and attract votes. By the end of the century, every politician’s spin doctor understood that television could be used to make or break a candidacy.
Bill Clinton was famous for showing sympathy with voters, a characteristic that helped him debate President Bush and made him the “I feel your pain” president. Al Gore, commonly derided as an upright bore, was seen in a new light after sharing an intimate kiss with his wife, Tipper, at the 2000 Democratic convention.
Fast forward 12 years. The internet has only served to increase the scrutiny to which our presidents and their challengers are subject. More than ever, we can get an idea of what kind of person our leaders and candidates are without even leaving our armchairs. We can go onto YouTube to watch Newt Gingrich shed tears while talking about his mother at a town hall event in Des Moines and melt when we realize that, like us, the Republican candidate loves his mother.
We can now “friend” our favorite politicians on Twitter and receive updates on their policies as well as their personal lives. And we can log in to Facebook, see a picture of Barack Obama fist-bumping a janitor juxtaposed alongside one of Mitt Romney having his shoes shined and be immediately convinced that the former has more respect for and a better understanding of the working class.
Americans want to eat our cake and have it too. We wanted to drink Coke without gaining weight, so we created diet Coke, then Coke Zero. We wanted to visit restaurants without leaving the comfort of our cars, so we covered the nation, sea-to-shining-sea, in drive-thrus. The way we pick our presidents is no exception to this cultural tendency. We demand that our president be firm and resolute in his or her stances and exhibit strength, courage and competence. But we also ask that our leader be someone who can make fun of themselves, play an instrument or grab a beer with us. For better or for worse, we have made it clear that we do not want an introverted, brooding stiff with no sense of humor — no matter how smart or capable — getting within arm’s reach of the nuclear codes.