So, it dawned on me when Kamala Harris exited the race. Why would a well-funded senator, relatively young, experienced and telegenic not make it? And lose to a significantly older crowd? And looking further back, why did Hillary Clinton not win in 2016? It got me thinking and I started to develop a theory around what you need, to be a successful contender for the presidency. Of course, any idiot can participate and run, but what is it that in the end pulls the lever for electoral success?
There are it seems three core qualities to become President of the United States. First you need a resume, a strong career ideally in politics that gives you the required experience to be the nation’s leader. But you also need to be able to tell people why you want that role, and for that you need to articulate a vision, a political mission or direction if you like. And thirdly, crucially as we will see, likeability: be a nice guy or girl who can ‘hang with the folks’ and show and call on endless reservoirs of empathy. In order to successfully contend the presidency, you will need at least two of these qualities, two and a bit is great, three is ideal of course. Less than two: forget it.
Let’s try this thesis now. Ronald Reagan ticked all three boxes comfortably, an extremely likeable guy, a clear vision and mission-oriented plan and years in the actor’s union and as Governor of California he solidified his resume. He won two terms in Washington, the second one with a record majority. Bill Clinton? Again, he had done his homework governing Arkansas, was and is an extremely likeable folksy talker who connects easily with people. Maybe not enough of the vision part, but that is more than two boxes ticked already. Bill was a two-term president. George Bush Jr? Solid experience as governor, very likeable guy with the Texan drawl when needed, bit light on vision, but like Bill he clocked two terms. Obama? It has to be said, Barack was quite light on the resume part with only a few years as state legislator and senator, but he royally compensated that with an agenda for America’s future and being an all-around really nice honest decent funny family guy.
The president that scores on less than two requirements is Donald Trump, in fact he manages one, barely. He managed the vision part by going after hot issues like immigration, less overseas wars and adjusting trade deals, ‘Make America Great Again’ of course presented a view of the future. But he is not even close to being likeable and his resume, even as a businessman, is quite arguably poor: not even a self-made man, something Americans like so much. Then why did he win? Trump was lucky to have an opponent who was also very thin on all three requirements. She build her resume on the basis of her marriage to Bill, had a very limited vision thing other than that it was her turn (which is why Joe Biden was relegated to the sidelines) and is by all accounts the furthest from being likeable, no warmth to speak of. The pairing of two incredibly weak contenders resulted in the outcome of 2016. It is fair to say that in that year the contest should have been 'Biden vs Romney' or 'Biden vs Rubio' or something like that.
So, what about today? Joe Biden scores phenomenally on all three counts, I mean who would not want this lifetime politician over for a beer to chat about his views for America’s future? ‘Uncle Joe’ got ahead because Bernie Sanders was, while solid on experience and ideas, probably not all that likeable and his set of ideas where maybe a tad too divisive for the average Democrat. Elizabeth Warren is a bit harder to qualify, I think she is actually on par with Sanders and probably a bit more likeable, so it is odd that she lost, even in her home state. Maybe the experience or ‘being around long enough’ part is what did her in.
So, let’s get back to Kamala and it is very plausible that her resume was too thin, but she really lost her mojo as a contender when her opponents dragged out the hard and cold prosecutor caricature: her likeability if it ever was there went straight down the drain. No, for likeability Pete Buttigieg was a much more viable candidate including the vision part, but mayor of South Bend, Indiana? Mwah, needs a bit more time building that resume.
Feel free to run the three-part test past any of your past and future candidates and see if the ‘at least two, ideally three’ model works. For this November it seems all bets are off given the Covid-19 crisis, but under normal circumstances and according to this model, Joe Biden should be the dead-on favourite to put the White House back into the Democratic column.
Photos: closest I came to seeing a president was visiting the White House in February 1999 doing the tourist tour. As I walked back all of a sudden there was lots of activity and I could just catch Bill’s motorcade heading across the bridge to Virginia for a speech.