Likeability and Political Forgiveness

by Bob Schwartz

In the most charming of political romantic comedies, The American President, an incandescently beautiful lobbyist (Annette Bening) chastises the handsome and liberal President (Michael Douglas), though not to his face:

The President has critically misjudged reality. If he honestly thinks that the environmental community is going to whistle a happy tune while rallying support around this pitifully lame mockery of environmental leadership just because he’s a nice guy and he’s done better than his predecessors, then your boss is the Chief Executive of Fantasyland.

The President is a very nice guy. He overhears this tirade, which leads to their meeting cute, having sex in the White House, splitting up, getting back together, and living happily ever after, romantically and politically. All is forgiven.

Everyone agrees that likeability matters. There is an apparent likeability gap between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Under normal circumstances, relative likeability is a solid predictor of Presidential outcomes. But these are anything but normal times. There are plenty of world-class doctors who are personality challenged, and given the choice between the one you would have a beer with and the one who can keep you alive, there isn’t much choice.

Still, likeability provides something that other characteristics cannot: room for forgiveness. That is why likeability matters, in politics and elsewhere. Everyone screws up, and the willingness of others to get over or past that is essential. Without denying his substantial talents and achievements, Bill Clinton survived on his likeability more than once. In the much darker and non-romantic comedy Primary Colors, based on Joe Klein’s roman a clef about pre-Presidential Bill Clinton, the candidate’s close friend and no-bullshit confidant, played by Kathy Bates, sums up the Peck’s Bad Boy of politics:

Now what kind of shit is that, Jack? Oh, excuse me. I forgot. It’s the same old shit. The shit no one ever calls you on, ever. Because you are so completely fucking special! Because everyone was always so proud of you. Me, too. Me, the worst.

Likeability matters because it makes you special, at least long enough to get beyond the worst of it. As President Obama confessed early on, he is not a perfect man, and would not be a perfect President. He hasn’t been, but who can be? The judgment depends on just how badly imperfect you are and how much people will forgive. That’s the well we all go to, and likeability keeps the well filled—at least for a while. Mitt Romney is not a perfect man or a perfect candidate. At some point, he will likely have to go to the well of likeability and forgiveness. We wonder whether there will be anything there when he does.