About a week ago, all news channels tuned in to cover the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, while the rest of America didn't really care. It's an annual ritual that's more about inside baseball than what gets done around the country. The event is more symbol than substance. Yet, during an election, symbols get covered more than substance and, overwhelmingly, media reports came back saying that our president was...cool. Many hailed this as a good thing. After all, being cool is a personality trait that many American's admire. We listen to cool people. We buy things advertised by cool people. Cool people do big things in America.
Yet, John Cassidy over at the New York Times makes an interesting point. President Obama's hipness is easily enjoyed by most partisan Democrats. It's one of the many reasons we elected him to replace our seemingly tone-deaf President Bush. And with Mitt Romney being, in public at least, somewhat of a cardboard cutout, the prevailing opinion is this competition has already been won. But, Cassidy points out that the essence of hipness is that "you operate on a more refined plane than most: you are more fashionable, more discerning, and more discriminating than the average boob." Another word for all of this? Elitist, and this is a word that carries a much more loaded tone for this President, especially amongst independents.
So, do voters really vote for cool? The United States is unique in the sense that we don't separate ceremonial and political duties between two heads of state; our president is responsible for both. Americans want a leader that represents us well on the world stage and at home. Not only that, the confidence and ease reflected by a leader cracking jokes smoothly during a dinner or while interacting with normal Americans can translate into confidence in the nation itself. It's a subtle relationship, but it’s there.
The issue is that, while we're in a recovering economy, it’s not recovering with the certainty that the market needs it to have. Who cares about cool when you don't have a job? Putting food on the table for oneself and their family tends to make people more focused on the bottom line and a 'What can you do for me?' mentality. Different qualities than inspiration matter the most to people in that situation, and there are far too many Americans facing this set of circumstances right now.
It's not unfair to say that a President's personality plays a lot into how well they do in elections or manage a country. But, how much is 'coolness' a part of that package? For folks dealing with the effects of the Great Recession, it’s not much, and they’re a sizable part of our country at the moment. Yet, with small signs of economic recovery, this same population might not feel that they are suffering as much of a burden and react accordingly. Either way, being cool is probably more beneficial for the president during boom times rather than bust, but any edge counts when an election is going to be as close as the one we're experiencing this year.