Choosing a President


Getting elected president is much like winning a high school popularity contest, except that in high school the cool kids generally aren’t given access to thermonuclear weapons.

This point has been driven home with special force recently. Consider the brouhaha that erupted over Joe Biden’s description of Barak Obama as “articulate and clean and bright and a nice-looking guy.” Almost all the commentary about this statement has focused on the racial stereotypes that Biden tripped all over.

And indeed there’s no question that Obama has become one of the favorites for his party’s presidential nomination because he’s an example of the Non-Threatening Black Male syndrome. In short, he’s an African-American man who “talks white” but still seems vaguely hip in a “black” way to whites who are impressed by how articulate, and clean, and bright and nice-looking he is. (Other good examples are Will Smith’s acting career and Tommy Amaker’s continuing employment as Michigan’s basketball coach).

But leaving the racial clumsiness of Biden’s comments aside, they do have the virtue, if only inadvertently, of highlighting the dubious sources of Obama’s rocket-like ride toward the front of the presidential field.

There’s no question that Obama is a very impressive man who has accomplished a great deal at a young age, but in terms of national politics his resume is quite thin. Until a little more than two years ago he was a state legislator, and his brief stay in the U.S. Senate has yet to be distinguished by any notable accomplishments.

Yet in an age when George W. Bush can be elected president, who can complain when someone like Obama is treated as a plausible presidential candidate? After all, Bush had no accomplishments to speak of, political or otherwise, when he was more or less handed the governorship of Texas, in much the same way a feudal duchy might be turned over to the ne’er do well son of a prince.

The governorship of Texas is one of the weakest of any state in terms of actual executive power, and yet Bush suddenly found himself at the front of the GOP presidential field in 2000. And what was the key to his otherwise inexplicable rise to the top of American politics?

Besides the obvious answer — he was the son of George H.W. Bush and hadn’t been convicted of any felonies — Bush’s personality was thought to make him presidential material. Specifically, he was judged by those who decided to put him forward to be “likeable.” Here was a “compassionate conservative,” whose hardscrabble exterior, formed by years of clearing brush on his hardscrabble Crawford ranch (the ranch was actually purchased and constructed in 1999-2000 to make Bush seem more authentically Texan despite his impeccable preppie roots), hid a warm and affable heart.

He was, as Chris Matthews repeated a few thousand times on “Hardball,”a guy you’d like to have a beer with.”

This sort of nonsense would be merely funny if it wasn’t so invidious. The notion that the key characteristic presidential candidates need to have is that they be deemed “likeable” is a dangerous bit of cultural idiocy that needs to be fought at every turn.

Would you choose a heart surgeon on the basis of whether you wanted to have a beer with him? Would you pick a lawyer because you liked the way she did her hair?

Speaking of which, a couple of weeks ago journalist Andrew Sullivan, while appearing on the “Chris Matthews Show,” noted that although he found most of Hillary Clinton’s policies attractive, he found it hard to support her candidacy because, “when I see her again, all the cootie vibes sort of resurrect themselves.”

Are we choosing presidents or electing homecoming kings? (Or, assuming the cootie factor can be someday overcome, queens).

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)


  1. Arion

    Saul Bellow once said, “Being elected to public office is a cross between a footrace and a high school popularity contest, with a bag of cliches being the grand prize.”

    Change ‘public office’ to ‘President’. It’s quite fitting.

  2. Sandy Price

    Good commentary. Paul Campos asks the question of the decade. What do we want in the way of character and integrity when we choose our President?

    I voted Republican for many years because I have respect for Capitalism. But when did corruption take over the free enterprise mind? When did our government change from building a free enterprise system into cheating, lying and manipulating for personal profits?

    How can we locate a man of courage, intelligence and virtue these days? We want a leader who can think on his/her feet but will not elect one who respects individual choices.

    After watching the Republican Party operating in command of our government these last 6 years they stand on heavy federal laws against any choice; not just abortion or gay marriage but how and when we are allowed to die. This new GOP runs with one hand in the voter’s pockets and the other on a trigger of implementing federal prohibitions to force us to live by the government’s social laws.

    The two party system has morphed into one party catering to the religious right. Reading through history I find this can be a dangerous agenda as it tends to remove personal choices of all of us and handing our government over to a big daddy who may not be qualified. I see a Wizard of Oz using smoke and mirrors over the American people.

    I’m waiting for a leader, a stateman, a respector of the Constitution who will fight for me in the government. I don’t care what party this candidate belongs to as long as he is willing to fight for my individual freedoms against an intrusive government or foreign attack. Is there such a man alive today?

  3. Ralph Mills

    In a world that has minimum requirements for doctors, lawyers, egineers, astronauts and tax collectors it is time that we start putting some minimum requirements in for the presidency. A total incompetent from a well known family, who was most likely given a free pass by the “Ivy League” school he graduated from, has been in the worlds most important position for the last six years…with two to go. His ability, ethics, intelligence and general competence are being challenged each day…if he were a surgeon he would have been kicked out of the operating room the first day. If professionals are tested for their competence it does seem unfair to have similar tests for an aspiring “world leader” prior to their seeking the most important job in the world.

  4. Sandy Price

    Ralph, in 2000 and again in 2004 the Republicans National Committee made it clear that anyone running for President must be pro-life. That was it! If they carried baggage of a dirty past, they only had to ask for forgiveness and claimed to be “saved” and they were as good as in the door.

    How many were truthful is another subject but they showed that the voters were being directed by their ministers and their knowledge of the Bill of Rights missing in content. It certainly indicated a lack of academic knowledge of even a junior highschool civics class.

    To improve America and if we really want to keep our Constitutional Republic, we must change the academics in our schools. Politics and History are often boring under the wrong teacher and when one thinks about it, history tells us how to act in the future. I found it a great subject for discussion during our dinner hours when the kids were home. We had no television and conversation was all we had. Our books and writing classes pretty much took the focus until the girls went off to college.

    America is an experiment in freedom and I fear we are letting it go the way of other nations who could not pull it off.

  5. I have lost faith in our system of electing presidents. I now favor the parlimentary system where members of parliment, themselves elected by the people, vote for the chief executive.

    After the elections of George W. Bush as president twice, I see how flawed our system is. It is a contest for $$.

    “Personality” matters more than experience and competency Only about half of those eligable to vote do so and few really know the issues. They are easily persuaded by negative campaign ads. Members of parliment can do a better job screening the chief executive and they have a simple way to get rid of him by a vote of no conficence. Bush would have been long gone had we a parlimentary system. The job of president is too important for the whole world to be decided by our voters who are uninformed and misinformed.

  6. paolo

    Hey folks,

    As Paul Campos points out, we now elect presidents on the basis of “likeability” and similar fluff–just like we used to vote for class president in high school.

    This is why the Founders did not want to have direct election of the president. If you read the Constitution carefully, you see that the Founders clearly wanted the president elected by a small quorum of upstanding citizens chosen by the state legislatures–the “electoral college.” Unfortunately, the states long ago gave up this responsibility, preferring to turn the election of the president over to the mob. I think we would get better presidents if we followed the electoral college system as originally laid out.