As President Obama has been taking heat for his economic policies and health care plan, his approval ratings have plummeted. According to the most recent Rasmussen poll, Obama’s approval index rating has now dipped to -14, as compared to his +28 rating earlier in the year. Whereas in January 65% approved of the job he was doing, now that number is at 48%. This is a dramatic change of national opinion since Obama took office just seven short months ago. But no one should be surprised at this. As American politics has morphed into a celebrity show (even as celebrities have become politicians), this has changed many aspects of our political process. And one of the more outstanding impacts is in the turbulence of public opinion regarding those who hold public office.
Celebrities, of course, are here one day and gone the next. Today’s most popular singers and TV stars are quickly forgotten, even reviled as passé seemingly overnight. Once a star isn’t “cool” anymore, he or she is dismissed. Or if, like Ozzy Osbourne or Paris Hilton, they refuse to be dismissed, they become objects of public ridicule. So when politicians leverage the entertainment world and take their campaigns to late night TV, effectively becoming celebrities themselves, it should not come as any shock if in a short period of time the public turns on them because, well, they’re just not “cool” anymore. And because they cannot be so easily dismissed or forgotten, since they (usually) serve their full terms, they must suffer public ridicule—almost as a matter of course, notwithstanding the merits or demerits of their policies.
Long before the 2008 election I predicted Obama would win, if only because he was the more telegenic of the two candidates. (Since 1960 the more telegenic candidate has won in every U.S. presidential election. So much for substance when it comes to American presidential politics….) I also expected that the Obama “cool” factor would wear off early in his term so that his policies would have to stand or fall on their own merits. Obama’s declining approval ratings and the furor over his health care plan have confirmed this. It appears that from here on out very little will come easy for this president, amazingly despite the Democrat majority in both houses of Congress. It will be interesting to see how he negotiates the rough road ahead when his celebrity currency of “cool” has all been spent.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. I’ve got a quick question in follow-up: do you think we’re stuck with celebrity/telegenic leaders or is there a feasible way out?
I always thought Bob Dole was quite good looking . . .
I did not consider George W. more telegenic than either candidate he opposed in 2000 or 2004.
The polls I saw that tracked candidates’ physical attractiveness in both 2000 and 2004 gave Bush the edge–especially among women. Bush was strongly preferred over Kerry and slightly over Gore. But, naturally, you are entitled to your personal preferences. I actually think Bush was the best-looking U.S. president since JFK, who might have been the most handsome chief executive ever, with the possible exception of Millard Filmore, of course.
I agree that Bob Dole was a stud in his younger years. And he certainly aged better than, say, Elvis or Marlon Brando.
Good question. I’m not too hopeful that American fixation with celebrity will fade anytime soon. And I don’t see a way out so long as we remain so image-obsessed as a culture. But I’d love to a proposal as to how this trend in politics might be resisted. As it is in personal relationships, so it goes in public life: a preoccupation with appearances is a dangerous vice.