Get To Be President By Acting Presidential

The recent news that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has called for the GOP to scale back the nominating convention circus to focus instead on the possible destruction that might come in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. He is reported to have said, “This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans.”

Do away with party politics? Surely you jest. This sort of grandstanding is a more perfect stage for party politics than any that the delegates could construct. In a moment of likely crisis, John McCain gets to “act presidential”. It seems cynical, but that plays a big part in how presidents are elected—perception.

Few incumbent presidents get ousted from office. Even if their popularity seems to be waning, or the economy is a bit shaky, the American people generally prefer the person who knows how to be president. President Ford had a nasty habit of getting caught on camera while having a few clumsy moments…usually involving stairs. When he generously mis-described the state of the people in the Eastern Bloc, thus showing a lack of understanding, he was all but guaranteed to lose the election. After all, presidents are able and capable, they don’t fumble.

It’s a pity his successor didn’t learn that lesson. President Carter thought that holing up in the White House would give the impression that the President was working on the problem of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the economy. Instead is showed a man afraid to show his face. That’s not at all presidential, and made if very easy for Reagan to win the election.

Still…it’s tough to oust a sitting president from office (ask a certain Mr. Dewey about his success at booting President Truman from the west wing). Now, when the race is open, the spoils tend to fall to the candidate who demonstrates not the best rhetoric, but instead gives the best impression of someone who is president material. The best way to do that is to jump on every chance to act presidential.

Woe be to those candidates who forget that how they do something is usually more important than what they do. Michael Dukakis is a shining case in point. In an effort to show that he was a defense-savvy sort of guy, he donned a helmet and rode around in a tank sporting a really big gun. What the public saw was this wonky guy wearing a silly hat while goofily trying to play soldier. You see, presidents are Commanders in Chief…they don’t have to play at the soldier thing.

John Kerry could possibly have defeated a weakened incumbent George W. Bush but for two fatal items. First…his wooden demeanor wasn’t anywhere equal to the warm-fuzzy persona that the public got used to with Reagan, Clinton, and G.W. Bush. But what mortally wounded his chances were the half-truthed (I’m being generous) attack ads by the “Swift Boat Veterans” that went straight to Kerry’s character. What scuttled him was a lack of defence. He didn’t even bluster much. That’s not very presidential at all. While you don’t want to seem like you’re whining, you also cannot be perceived as a wimp.

In the current campaign, we have an interesting combination of forces: Obama with his almost-but-not-quite Kennedy-esque ability to pump up a crowd…especially of young voters; and McCain, who does understand that perception matters. McCain visited the areas likely to be hit, he’s thinking about the people and not politics (I even typed that with a straight face), and he genuinely knows how to be a leader. It’s brilliant, and a great way to divert attention away from his iffy-choice for a VP, at least for a while. Obama really doesn’t have a counter. There is nothing that he can do that doesn’t seem like political posturing…at least not in respect to the hurricane. If Obama doesn’t realize that his job right now is to “take a few days away” from the campaign, roll up his sleeves, and be seen as the one who can deal with the aftermath with decisive action, then he’s definitely ceding to McCain the acting-presidential high ground.

On the other hand, after this crisis passes from the news cycle in about a week, both candidates will have to start making their perceived weaknesses seem to be truly presidential. McCain’s choice for VP raises the specter of naming people of dubious quality to his cabinet or to the Supreme Court. Obama has to start seeming like he has a backbone. If his camp continues to lob softballs at the GOP VP candidate, then he becomes just another feel-good democrat that doesn’t understand how to run a campaign. Probably the best thing he could do would be to inspect some National Guard troops that will likely be called in the wake of Gustav. He needs to be in front of men and women in uniform to appear to be a Commander in Chief. Play that on his next round of non-attack ads. Nothing says presidential than troops.

At this point, even though it’s still sort of early, what with there still being two months until the election, I have to say that McCain is playing the game as well as it could be played. He has definitely broken some traditional protocol by vigorously campaigning during the opposing party’s convention, and his announcement of Palin as his VP choice during the bump period is a little squirrely (it sort of reinforces McCain’s “nasty” reputation), but by any measure, he is acting more presidential than the talky guy.

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