The End of Personality Politics

President Obama didn’t win office on experience, credentials, or accomplishment. He won for one reason only: who he is. He has a winning personality, and America had a love affair with their new American Idol; rewarding him with its highest office. Politics went from being about policy to being about personality. Republicans who supported Obama didn’t care about his specific positions, they just felt that it was “time for a change,” and were moved by Obama’s flowing oratory. Even those of us who didn’t support Obama were at times moved by it, and personally speaking, I disagreed with much of what Obama ran on.

Prior to this last election cycle, politics, and especially presidential politics (at least in my memory), were never centered around personality, or wanting to have a beer with the candidate. Reagan won in large part due to the poor performance of Carter, the Iran hostage crisis and inflation. Bush Sr. won on the tails of a successful Reagan presidency. Clinton won mainly due to the interference of third party candidate, Ross Perot. Bush won in a near even split of the electorate. In all of these elections, the personality of the candidate had less to do with getting elected than their policies did. In fact, more often than not, it was a choice of the lesser of evils based on their policy stance, and personality was largely irrelevant.

The exact opposite was true with the election of Obama. During the campaign, the most common description of Obama was that from a policy standpoint, he was a blank slate, a vessel in which his fans could place their hopes and dreams. His campaign slogans reflected this by using vague terms like “hope” and “change,” and enthusiastically telling supporters, “Yes we can,” as if before Obama, they weren’t sure if they could. He was a master of non-specifics, and of high minded, soaring, intellectual and often times inspiring, if vague, rhetoric.

For the first time, it wasn’t the greatness of the country, or of the structure of our government and freedoms set forth by the framers, which inspired confidence in America and would get us through the economic crisis. No longer did we put our stock in the idea that there is something special about Americans, all Americans, that despite the odds, despite how bleak the picture was, that we would always, via our ingenuity, hard work and freedom, come through the problems of the day; as we had before, time and time again, when facing worse threats in our 200 plus year history. This time, America’s doomed fate could only be saved by one person: a man named Barack Obama, who given the chance, promised to change the country, without much real discussion about how.

Sure Obama had plans and specifics on his website, and yes, he did describe plans in his speeches. But there were deep, unanswered questions about those plans. And there was a larger question about the nature of this change and the true identity of America — touched upon in episodes such as Obama’s encounter with Joe the Plumber. But the media glossed over these questions and relentlessly attacked critics as either ideologues, fakes, or racists. They laughed loudly at any suggestion that Obama represented closet socialism, while suggesting that since Bush had dabbled in the same pool, this wasn’t really such a stretch anyway.

To make matters worse, McCain ran a lousy campaign, which took away any confidence the right and independents might have had in him. Amidst the visceral hatred for Bush, McCain nailed the coffin of his presidency shut with the choice of Palin as his running mate and various comments he proudly made about his lack of knowledge in finance and technology. Obama won by a near landslide, but not by running on a liberal or other ideology. He won because he was Obama and McCain was not.

To a lesser degree, Tim Giethner’s confirmation followed a similar trajectory. Here was a man who, by his actions, should never have been considered for the position. Yet America was facing a crisis so dire, we were told, that we must overlook his flaws and he must be confirmed. Again, it wasn’t America or the system of capitalism that had built all this wealth for all these years that could resolve the situation. The last eight years supposedly proved that history didn’t matter and the old fashioned notions of capitalism just weren’t working. The chickens were finally coming home to roost, and we needed change. From a treasury perspective, it all rested on this one man, this really smart man. Geithner held the key, he had the solution that no other person had. And besides, Obama chose him.

Since the dramatics and grandeur of the election, inauguration and cabinet appointment process, Obama has revealed himself in many non-presidential ways. The hope and change have turned, in many cases, into despair and cynicism. He hasn’t forwarded a single new idea, or post-partisan anything, while pointing fingers at the prior administration, the greed of the private sector — anything and everything except, perhaps, the public’s response to his own unfinished policies. Unless you consider “change” as following liberal ideology to the letter, and doing it badly, we haven’t had much of that either. All new presidents have their clumsy moments, but for Obama, that’s all it’s been. I have not observed any president in my lifetime require nearly as much on-the-job training.

Likewise with Geithner. His stock has fallen from a high to a low that would make Citibank blush. After several attempts to quell market concerns and show that he could lead, the markets instead learned that there was no there, there.

The true believers still do, and always will, believe, but that doesn’t matter. The independents, the swing voters, even some moderate Republicans and Reagan Democrats — these are the people who are the key to winning and losing an election, and they are starting to wake up to the reality that one person doesn’t have the answers. Great speeches aside, we can’t look to the government to fix our problems. The real solution isn’t from some freshman treasury secretary, nor in the words read with great feeling from a teleprompter by an inexperienced president. The real solution to our woes is in the hands and hearts, and in the hard work we, as individual Americans, do every day.

Perhaps I am being too forward-looking, but I don’t think so. Barring any event that would canonize Obama, and by extension his cabinet, and provided Obama continues on the trajectory that he’s set in these first two months of his presidency, he will more quickly than Bush find himself with worse ratings. In the internet age, judgment is passed faster and sticks longer. These days, the best advice for a public figure is, “Don’t play yourself,” yet Obama already has. America’s bold experiment of picking a president based purely on personality amid a lack of clear position on policy, is over. At least for one generation.