Performers in Chief

Every President, every aspirant, every high-profile politician is a performer. They are the epitome of T.S. Eliot’s “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (or that may vote for you).

There is no moral measure in this, any more than there is for fish swimming or birds flying. The measure instead is the roles they choose to play, how well they play them, how suited they are to play them, and ultimately how the performance plays with the audiences.

Even playing yourself is a form of performance, sometimes the most challenging. Washington, Lincoln, FDR, all were who they seemed to be, just in a public way that channeled, focused, and amplified that actuality. It was only partly Reagan’s policies that got him overwhelmingly elected and keeps him in the national consciousness; it’s that he created and played an unforgettable Presidential role that even his skeptics admit was masterful. On the other end, we have many moments of miscasting, as in Michael Dukasis’s misbegotten moment playing a warrior in a tank.

President Obama was on the Jimmy Fallon show last night. We may have had other performers in the office who were as affable, funny, and smooth, but in the young twenty-first century, there are none who can hit the perfect note at the nexus of presidential gravity and free-spirited playfulness. The President slow jammed the news, working in his message about attempts to double the interest rate on Stafford college loans.

Older viewers, who may fondly remember candidate Richard Nixon’s few seconds on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968 (“Sock it to ME?”), might think that Obama goes too far—in this and his many “cool” appearances. But Nixon’s performance was more than forty years ago, and audiences and sensibilities have changed. We may not want a President who is one of us, but we may want a President who chooses to act in a way that demonstrates he knows what time it is and who we are—and one who can pull it off naturally.

Up to this point, Mitt Romney seems to be one of the most reluctant and least effective performers we’ve had running for President. This doesn’t mean there won’t be improvement, but it will have to come from him or his handlers recognizing the basics: choose the roles appropriate for yourself and your intended audiences, and then play the roles effectively. One of Romney’s challenges is sometimes called flip-flopping or more recently etch-a-sketching. But the real challenge is that Romney has not chosen any roles to play, and he is struggling to even play the default role—himself—effectively. Romney has little experience as a performer, since many business positions don’t require it. It’s time for him to learn.

Until Romney decides to pick some appropriate roles and learn how to perform them, it will be an uphill race for him. Likeability has become the shorthand index for predicting electoral success. But it is something more, less subject to measure, but still very clear. The best performers often win the Presidency. In a campaign, and in office, you don’t just be the President, you play the President.