Likable Enough

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

Willy Loman – the salesman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – offers that advice to his son. Sure, the neighbor’s son is a hot-shot lawyer who just argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s fine, and he may be liked, but is he well-liked? You see, being well-liked is what really matters – that’s where the big money is, and the power, and, most of all, the respect. Miller’s rather heavy-handed 1949 play explores what an empty delusion that is – and how it destroys a man, and a family, and by implication a nation. The play is a rather shrill and pretentious critique of the American Dream – bourgeois consumer capitalism is a complex system that prospers and grows by leaps and bounds if you have what is in essence a nation of salesmen, where everyone is selling everyone else stuff no one really needs. There the salesman is king, and salesmen must be liked.

The world that finally overwhelms Willy Loman is, however, not exactly the world that Miller imagined. The tragedy was caused by a structural change developing in the economy at the time, not this one fellow’s delusions. Glad-handing salesmen were slowly becoming obsolete, replaced by nerdy technical experts who actually had to know their stuff – the triumph of expertise over personality. People would eventually come to trust complete geeks with no social skills at all. They didn’t have to be liked. If they were likable they were suspect, and they in turn are being displaced by on-line shopping, with no salesmen at all. Miller didn’t like that we were a nation of shallow sleaze-ball salesmen, but their day would soon end. Even then the world was becoming self-service, starting with the automat. No one had to talk to anyone. Miller’s play is no more than a curiosity now, about another world. But at least he got to marry Marilyn Monroe. Some good came of all his histrionic writing, or maybe not. She was a troubled woman.

Be that as it may, Miller’s notion that trying to be likable is sad, if not tragic, may not apply to politics. We elect who we like – George W. Bush, who you could see having a beer with, not Al Gore, the stiff scold – sunny Ronald Reagan, not that odd Jimmy Carter or the hapless Walter Mondale. Their positions on this and that might have been ghastly, but they were likable. That alone seemed to matter, but on January 5, 2008, there was that Democratic presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, up in New Hampshire, after Barack Obama had trounced Hillary Clinton in Iowa. No one had seen that coming, and now it was the two of them, and John Edwards and Bill Richardson on stage with Charlie Gibson of ABC News and Scott Sprawling, a local news anchor there, and this exchange:

MR. SPRADLING: The University of New Hampshire Survey Center has been consistently trying to probe the minds of New Hampshire voters and get a sense of what they think about all of you. I’d be happy to report that the experience-versus-change debate seems to be sinking in. And what I’d like to get is to this:

New Hampshire voters seem to believe that of those of you on the stage, you are the most experienced and the most electable. In terms of change, they see Senators Obama and Edwards as the agents of change, in New Hampshire mindset. My question to you is simply this: What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings. (Laughter)

MR. SPRADLING: I’m sorry, Senator. (Scattered applause) I’m sorry.

SEN. CLINTON: But I’ll try to go on. (Laughter) He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.

SEN. OBAMA: You’re likable enough, Hillary. (Inaudible)

SEN. CLINTON: Thank you so much. (Laughter) I appreciate that.

Hillary-supporters were up in arms – that was just mean. Others saw Obama taunting her – yeah, she was likable, sort of, but not really, not like he was likable. But that’s not what he said. Obama actually dismissed the idea that likability mattered all that much. She was fine. What you think, and why, and how you would lead, and what you would do, are what matters. Maybe he was getting tired of everyone saying how likable he was and glossing over what he was actually saying. Maybe, like Arthur Miller long ago, he actually believed the whole likability thing was stupid. He did dismiss the whole thing, even if it sounded like an insult. The press, however, had a field day. Cat-fight! Claws out!

Nothing came of it. After Obama won the nomination the two of them got along swimmingly. After Obama won the election he named her his secretary of state. They disagreed over this and that – arming the Syrian rebels and whatnot – but they never again argued about which of them was more likable. What’s the point? There was work to do. They argued about policy.

The press doesn’t do that, and a commenter here, a friend who was part of the team that created CNN back in 1980, explains why that is:

Political journalists spend too much time on the horserace and not enough on policies. One reason for this, I think, is that it’s apparently easier to talk about who’s up and down and why, which is often empirical and largely incontrovertible, than it is to discuss the way things ought to be done in the country, which gets you into a level of complex expertise that no reporter is confident he has, and which opens him up to accusations of taking sides.

So, back in 2008, Barack Obama – a courteous and pleasant fellow who was immensely likable – wanted to talk about policy. Hillary Clinton, shrill at times and charming at other times, certainly didn’t want to talk about likability. She too wanted to talk about policy. Scott Sprawling, the local news anchor, didn’t. Policy is hard. Reading the polls about likability – the favorable-unfavorable ratings – is easy. The two of them should have turned on Scott Sprawling and told him to get serious. Who cares about likability?

The press still cares, so Politico reports this:

Hillary Clinton has a numbers problem.

No question, as her retinue of aides and supporters is quick to point out, she still polls better than any of her putative Republican rivals. And yes, it was inevitable that as she moved squarely into the political arena, Americans would see her as less of an above-the-fray stateswoman and more of a partisan Democrat. And of course it’s still June 2015 – six months before any actual voters will be picking sides in an Iowa caucus room, and well over a year before the main event.

But still: Her untrustworthy ratings are stubbornly high, and perhaps most alarming of all for Team Hillary, the “so-called scandals,” as Clinton campaign operatives like to refer to them, are starting to take their toll on her favorability numbers, sending chills down the spines of Democrats who have put all their eggs in the Hillary basket.

It’s a huge turnabout from September 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the widely admired globe-trotting diplomat, logged her highest favorability rating ever in a CNN poll – 69 percent.

In a new CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday, she was down to 46 percent. Even worse for her, the poll showed Clinton with her highest unfavorability ratings of the past 14 years – 50 percent, putting her underwater. A separate poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post and ABC News found that Clinton’s favorability was just 45 percent, the lowest in that survey since April 2008, when she was in the middle of a tough primary fight against Barack Obama.

What she thinks, and why, and how she would lead, and what she would do as president, are never mentioned. She’s liked, but she’s not well liked. That’s the Willy Loman warning, which her team dismissed:

Defending Clinton, campaign officials say she’s Teflon: She’s been the subject of sustained Republican attacks for two months, they note, yet still polls well in head-to-head match-ups and remains in good standing with Democratic voters.

In a background briefing with reporters last week, senior campaign officials said their own internal polling showed no widespread deterioration of Clinton’s position due to questions surrounding her email use or the Clinton Foundation. And a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday showed Clinton shrugging off fresh challenges from Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley – 57 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers said she was still their first choice, up 1 percent from January.

Campaign surrogates argued, too, that Clinton is well-positioned relative to her opponents. “Hillary Clinton is in strong shape for both [the nomination and general election], while the leading Republican candidates are bunched together and barely register 10 percent in the polls of their own primary,” said Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the pro-Clinton group Correct the Record.

Perhaps these people don’t care about likability. Perhaps they care about policy – tolerance and inclusiveness, raising the minimum wage and doing something about income inequality, something to bring back something like a middle class, if that is even possible now, and rebuilding America’s woeful infrastructure and having clean air and clean water, and all the rest. They seem to agree with Barack Obama. “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

She is likable enough to beat the Republicans on all these issues, and Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog looks at the crosstabs in the CNN poll and notices something else:

A lot of observers are wondering whether this will be a generational election, with an older, twentieth-century-rooted Democrat, Hillary Clinton, running against a much younger Republican, possibly Marco Rubio. How does that particular matchup play out now, according to CNN? Specifically, how do voters at either end of the age curve respond to the matchup?

Overall, Clinton beats Rubio by 3 – yes, he’d be a strong challenger against her. But among younger voters, the young guy loses to the older woman by 20 points. Among older voters, the young guy wins by 7.

I’ve pointed out that Rubio seems surprisingly popular among the elderly – but Hillary Clinton’s appeal to younger voters seems clear across the board in the CNN poll. With 18-34-year-old voters, she beats Jeb Bush by a whopping 67%-28% margin, beats Scott Walker 60%-37%, beats Ted Cruz (who’s also quite young) 61%-33%, and even beats Rand Paul 55%-43% (despite his dude-bro appeal). What’s more, 18-34-year-old voters think Clinton represents the future rather than the past by a 64%-33% margin. (Senior citizens say she represents the past, 56%-40%.)

So, yes, this could be a generation battle – with the older candidate winning the young and the younger candidate doing better among the old. That could be worrisome for Clinton – older people are more likely to vote. But if she loses in 2016, it’s not going to be because the young think she’s a has-been.

This likability thing isn’t so simple after all. When policy matters, young voters seem to turn on young candidates, when they hate their policies. Who knew? And Matthew Yglesias blows it all up:

Quinnipiac is out with a new poll that confirms something the national media is loathe to admit, and that essentially never surfaces in their coverage of one of the most-covered people in the world today: Hillary Clinton is the most popular politician in America.

It would be genuinely silly to think that her early leads in general election polling tell us anything interesting about what will happen in November 2016. But they tell us a lot about how people feel in May 2015, and the way they feel is pretty good about Hillary Clinton.

According to Gallup, for example, she is the most admired woman in the world. What’s more, she has been the most admired woman in the world for 17 out of the past 18 years.

He links to all that data, and points out the problem here. Journalists don’t like Hillary Clinton:

The press hates to admit this. For Clinton, good news is never just good news. Instead it’s an opportunity to remind the public about the media’s negative narratives about Clinton and then to muse on the fact that her ratings somehow manage to hold up despite these narratives.

Here’s how the Wall Street Journal wrote up an earlier poll showing Clinton beating all opponents – “Hillary Clinton’s stature has been battered after more than a month of controversy over her fundraising and email practices, but support for her among Democrats remains strong and unshaken, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds.”

And here’s how the New York Times wrote up yet another poll showing Clinton beating all opponents – “Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have initially weathered a barrage of news about her use of a private email account when she was secretary of state and the practices of her family’s foundation, an indication that she is starting her second presidential bid with an unusual durability among Democratic voters.”

And there’s a reason for that:

This framing is not surprising, since, among journalists, Clinton is one of the least popular politicians. She is not forthcoming or entertaining with the press. She doesn’t offer good quotes. She doesn’t like journalists, respect what we do, or care to hide her disdain for the media. She feels that the right-wing press has tried to destroy her for decades, that the mainstream press got played like a cheap fiddle by the conservative press, and that even the liberal press was overwhelmingly hostile to her during her 2008 campaign.

Ah, but the public hates journalists too:

Journalists are obviously free to dislike politicians who are uncooperative with the press, and to celebrate those who embrace a more freewheeling, media-friendly style. But reporters all too often confused the conventional wisdom of the journo-pack with the opinions of actual voters.

The reality is that Clinton’s disdain for the press is largely shared by the public, which does not think journalists are credible or contribute to society’s well-being.

At the same time, most of the “bad” narratives about both Clintons that exist in the media are essentially self-centered. From an impeachment grounded in Bill’s effort to keep an extramarital affair out of the newspapers to a scandal about an email server designed to keep the contents of Hillary’s messages out of the newspapers, the Clintons have continually run afoul of the press’s fervent desire to know everything.

But few regular people evaluate public figures on the basis of their level of cooperation with media inquiries. Clinton’s brand of cautious center-left politics and her genuine passion for trying to bring people together and make deals more or less reflects what the public wants from a politician.

In short, the public is telling the press that Hillary is likable enough, and they have been telling them that over and over again. The press just can’t accept that. If they did, well, they’d have to write about policy instead – and that’s hard work.

Instead, you get Aaron Blake in the Washington Post explaining how Hillary Clinton’s problem is honesty and the GOP’s is empathy:

While people generally don’t see Clinton as honest, they think she’s better when it comes to understanding the problems of people like them – 49-46 percent. That’s not as good for her as it once was, but it’s still above water. It’s also far better than the GOP’s nominal frontrunner, Jeb Bush.

For Bush, in fact, the numbers are reversed. While people say 45-40 percent that he’s honest and trustworthy, they say 55-35 percent that he doesn’t understand the problems of people like them – a massive 20-point gap significantly larger than Clinton’s honesty problem.

But it’s not just Bush. It’s a mirror image of what happened in 2012. Even as President Obama was leading Mitt Romney by three percentage points overall late in the race, when people were asked who understood them more, Obama led by eight.

And it’s not just these four individuals either. The Post-ABC poll asked this question about either party twice in 2014. In January, people favored Democrats on this question 46-37 percent. In October, it was 48-35 percent – double digits.

And the winner is:

Clinton certainly comes to the 2016 race with some liabilities – many of her own making – but as long as she and her party are seen as more in touch with average Americans, it’s going to be more difficult for the GOP to capitalize on her character flaws.

What about policy? What’s that?

Heather Parton dives deeper:

After he ended his long and storied career with CBS last Sunday with his final appearance as the host of Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer went on Fox News and spoke to Howard Kurtz. And if the old trope that a “gaffe” is when someone accidentally tells the truth, then Schieffer committed one last gaffe on his way out the door. Kurtz, king of the leading question, asked Schieffer if the media gave Barack Obama an incredibly easy ride in 2008 and Schieffer replied “I don’t know, maybe we were not skeptical enough. It was a campaign.”

He did catch himself and quickly added that it is the role of the opponents to “make the campaign.” He said, “I think, as journalists, basically what we do is watch the campaign and report what the two sides are doing.”

Except when they’re not being “skeptical enough” or giving them an “easy ride.”

He sort of gave the game away, didn’t he? The press wasn’t skeptical enough. Of what? Has President Obama subsequently been accused of scandal? Is he corrupt? Compared to other recent administrations (ahem), the Obama White House has been downright saintly. Is he unusually unpopular? No, the country is divided along party lines; but he is just as popular with the people who voted for him as he ever was. So what should the press have been more skeptical about? It must be his policies, which apparently Howard Kurtz and Bob Schieffer don’t like and believe should have been more thoroughly challenged. That’s a long way from “We watch the campaign and report what the two sides are doing.”

This complicates matters, but maybe not:

Hillary Clinton has many flaws, like all of us, and the American people may end up deciding that her positives don’t outweigh them no matter how popular she is today. But a refusal to cater to the political press is unlikely to be among their reasons for rejecting her. They know that silly complaint doesn’t translate into a serious attempt to discern whether Clinton (or any other pol they decide needs this treatment) is a capable leader with good ideas and the temperament to be the president. It’s already obvious that this has become yet another contest among insiders to see if they can “take her down”.

She may not win, but it won’t be because she was mean to the political press corps. That’s actually a selling point. You’d think they’d have figured that out by now.

And by the way, she’s likable enough. What do the Republicans have?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Likable Enough

  1. Rick says:

    A few points of interest on today’s column:

    – – – – – – – – – –
    First of all, I’m the one who wrote this (see above):

    Political journalists spend too much time on the horserace and not enough on policies.

    I’ve thought of an example of something that journalists don’t generally really discuss: the economy.

    I would guess that if you were to poll most Americans of all political persuasions during the 2012 elections, there would be consensus on the fact that Obama’s 2009 Stimulus didn’t work — while, in fact, two polls of economists — that is, actual experts on the economy — showed that a huge majority of them, from both the right and the left, think that it did.

    One big reason most Americans didn’t know this was because journalists never brought it up, maybe thinking it was digging too deeply into arcane academic crap that would just bore people to tears. Instead, they just reported on public opinion about which candidate was better equipped to handle the economy — even if that candidate was arguably wrong, or at least in conflict with the consensus of the experts — on the apparent assumption that elections are not about actual truth, they’re about what the public thinks is the truth.

    So when Bob Schieffer said…

    “I don’t know, maybe we were not skeptical enough. It was a campaign.”

    …I think that, instead of “not skeptical enough”, he should have said “not informative enough”, since how much the voters know about things they need to know about is due to the efforts (or, in this case, the lack thereof) of journalists, who’s job it is to inform them.

    – – – – – – – – – –
    Then there’s the New York TImes, talking about how Hillary is faring:

    Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have initially weathered a barrage of news about her use of a private email account when she was secretary of state and the practices of her family’s foundation, an indication that she is starting her second presidential bid with an unusual durability among Democratic voters.

    It’s not hard to see that the Clinton campaign’s referring to the Clinton scandals as “so-called scandals” has some resonance with the public, most of which seems to see the so-called private email account “scandal” about as scandalous as using the company phone to call your mother long distance, and may even see the Clinton Foundation “scandal” the way I do — Republicans implying that (or maybe even outright claiming that) Bill and Hillary kept millions of dollars of charity money for themselves. It’s not that there is no problem, I think people understand, that if so, it’s not nearly as big a deal as the Republicans make it out to be.

    A large part of the Republicans’ problem with credibility has to come from their history of blatant partisan lying, such as their obvious repeated attempts to shut down the government unless Obama does what they demand, then blaming Obama for wanting to shut down the government. They have to know that they’re only hurting themselves, as this sort of thing will inevitably catch up with them eventually.

    (And yes, I realize this is me talking about the horse-race, isn’t it? Okay, but I’m not saying horse-race stuff isn’t interesting or important, I’m just saying it shouldn’t substitute for the more substantive stuff.)

    – – – – – – – – – –
    A few observations about something Matthew Yglesias says here:

    Journalists are obviously free to dislike politicians who are uncooperative with the press, and to celebrate those who embrace a more freewheeling, media-friendly style. But reporters all too often confused the conventional wisdom of the journo-pack with the opinions of actual voters.

    I’ve been away from newsrooms for a long time, so I can’t say this with authority, but I don’t hear the press conflating their own opinions with those of the public, except that I do think they may take too seriously the stuff they themselves see in the news, forgetting that when there’s nothing actually interesting going on, their own colleagues try to make interesting the only stuff they have to report on — sort of like that Stephen Stills song that says, when you can’t be with the one you love, then you should “Love The One You’re With“.

    I don’t know if the public was even aware of the media’s view at the time, that the incoming Obama administration in 2008 was turning out to be probably the most non-media-friendly in decades, much more so than Republican administrations that preceded it, and even more so than the incoming Clinton White House, which despite its reputation of being pro-press, immediately shut down the custom of White House correspondents wandering freely outside the press cubicle area, through and amongst the other White House offices.

    All new administrations spar with the White House TV pool when it comes to photo ops. When the president meets in the oval office with the foreign minister of Vanuatu, his people tend to insist that just a cameraman and sound tech come in for a few minutes, whereas the networks insist on an “editorial presence” — that is, that a reporter also attend, at least for the purpose of issuing a report on their impressions afterward to the pool, and maybe to even ask a question, hoping for a sound-bite. Accommodation was generally reached between Republican administrations and the so-called “liberal mainstream media”, while the Democrats, especially the Obama group, reportedly stood up to the media, apparently not really caring what it thought.

    As for CNN, conservatives who referred to it as the “Clinton News Network” were probably not as aware as those of us who worked there that, as well as could be determined, most if not all of top management was somewhat more conservative than was assumed (nor that Bill Clinton and his people themselves were not particularly fond of CNN, citing some, possibly imagined, slights in coverage), and I’m pretty sure the same could be said of my previous employers, The Associated Press and NBC, back in the day when everyone on the right assumed all the media were filled with nothing but bleeding-heart pinkos.

    The reality is that Clinton’s disdain for the press is largely shared by the public, which does not think journalists are credible or contribute to society’s well-being.

    As a response to the disdain the public has for the press, I can only think of an all-purpose answer to most such nonsense, often-heard from Bill Zimmerman, an old CNN colleague of mine:

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”

    As often as I see American mainstream media seemingly falling down on the job, especially in these days when there’ s more media to do so than back in my day, I’d still rather get my information about the world from our press than, say, the Putin-dominated press in Russia.

    In fact, maybe just to make things interesting, I’ve often wondered if, once a year, all American media could just shut down and go to the beach — say, for the month of August — in which no media company would be allowed to report anything at all, about anything, not even the Kardashians.

    That, I reckon, would be a fun way to find out, once it starts happening, if the public still “does not think journalists are credible or contribute to society’s well-being.”


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