In our media age, if a politician does not recognize the importance of his image, he’s either never going to get the seat to which he aspires or will lose it soon after he does. John McCain probably lost as many votes last fall from his erratic behavior at the time of the financial crisis as he did for his failure to craft and communicate a coherent message on the economy. By contrast, Obama’s coolness at the same time may have sealed the deal for many wavering voters, wanting to vote for the party out of power, but having doubts about its 2008 presidential nominee.
By the same token, Peggy Noonan thinks that President Obama’s repeating bowing to the crowned heads of Asia could hurt him more for the image they convey than for the protocol they breach:
In a presidency, a picture or photograph becomes iconic only when it seems to express something people already think. When Gerald Ford was spoofed for being physically clumsy, it took off. The picture of Ford losing his footing and tumbling as he came down the steps of Air Force One became a symbol. There was a reason, and it wasn’t that he was physically clumsy. He was not only coordinated but graceful. He’d been a football star at the University of Michigan and was offered contracts by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
But the picture took off because it expressed the growing public view that Ford’s policies were bumbling and stumbling. The picture was iconic of a growing political perception.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren’t playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying “Tough Talks Yield Big Progress” or “Obama Shows Muscle in China,” the bowing pictures might be understood this way: “He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation’s interests.”
Instead we’re getting headlines indicating that he didn’t get much, if anything, from his trip to Asia. It becomes thus an image of his failure to show confidence on the world stage much, much as his coolness in the fall campaign suggested a confidence to handle tough crises without breaking a sweat.
Well, maybe what we see then was not a confidence, but a coolness to almost everything. Things didn’t rattle him because he was cool to almost anyone who did not challenge his own self-image.
Anyway, as with anything by Peggy, just read the whole thing, particularly her (all too brief alas!) commentary on why “he can’t afford to win” on health care (as the legislation is currently crafted).
CLOSING THOUGHT: As I excerpt an excellent Peggy column today, I do want to address the view that some readers have that she endorsed Obama. During last fall’s campaign, I believe she offered a tacit endorsement of John McCain.
To be sure, she said some nice things about the Democratic nominee which made some believe she backed the Chicago politician. No, she didn’t. It was just her way of studying the man and trying to understand (and appreciate) his appeal.
Appreciating why so many people could pin their hopes on a charismatic man without much record of accomplishment does not signal support of the guy, but merely that she was doing her job. For, at the time, he did draw large crowds to him and galvanize a generation if just for a campaign.
It’s too bad though that such a gifted columnist didn’t show a similar appreciation for another politician last fall who drew large crowds and continues to galvanize more than a generation and looks likely to have an appeal beyond one campaign cycle.