With less than sixty days remaining until the presidential election, I feel compelled to ask one simple question. No, I don't go around asking who my friends are voting for, but rather I ask them "why are you voting for him?"
To me, the question and differences between candidates in this country are less of a concern to me than people's reasoning behind choosing one. There are a myriad of reasons to choose the person you cast your ballot for. But what I can't fathom is the recent trend of the presidential election becoming little more than a popularity contest. I do not understand this newfound obsession America has with electing the most "affable" candidate.
It was in the back of one of my history classes two weeks ago that I was confronted with this notion. There were two guys in the row in front of me talking about the soon-to-be ubiquitous presidential race. Following the question of "who are you going to vote for?", both students offered a different response to this question, one espousing Romney and the other Obama. But despite their different responses, both also asked the same question back.
Both asked the other "why," and both matter-of-factly stated that they found their respective candidate of choice to be "more likable," and just "kind of cool."
I'm not going to lie, while listening to this conversation I had two striking thoughts. The first was that I am being excessively creepy and should try my best not to eavesdrop as much. And the second being, when did it matter if the president was likable or not?
This trend of putting emphasis on appearances isn't a new aspect to American politics. It even outdates the campaigns of Bush being elected as a man you'd want to "have a beer with." Without his good looks and likable nature (and unmentioned ample help from outside sources in Illinois), Kennedy would have had a much harder time securing the White House over the terribly stiff and awkward Nixon. In the case of Kennedy, the country was lucky.
Not only was he affable and charming, he was also one of the best presidents this country has ever had — but that doesn't mean affability should be a valid reason for electing a president.
By focusing on how someone appears and how well they handle themselves in front of TV cameras, we create an uniformed voting population blinded by coifed hairs, expensive suits, cheap smiles and well-rehearsed speeches. All of those qualities make for a great used car salesman, but they don't inherently create a good president.
Take into consideration the case of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Both men are universally considered today to be in the "Top Five" of U.S. presidents, and both in ways were unlikable. Jefferson was famous for his hatred of public speaking and for once answering the White House door in essentially his pajamas, actions which would seem to be indicative of a 30-something living with his parents, not the man who organized the LouisianaPurchase. And as for Lincoln, with his high-pitched voice, gangly arms and unattractive visage (hence the beard), he would stand little chance to win an election in this appearance-driven political world of today. Both men were great minds, great presidents, and neither was affable in a modern sense.
Being likable isn't a bad thing. Nor does being likable necessarily mean someone is going to be a bad president. But being likable also doesn't mean someone will be a good one. Despite that fact, our nation still puts too much store into how much we "like the candidate as a person." Why does it matter? I don't care how much I like Obama or Romney. I want to know their foreign policy, their plans to fix our economy and their ideas for helping to stem the growth of poverty in this country.
Being affable is a great quality when choosing a wingman, but it isn't an inherent one for choosing a president. When election time comes around, I hope this country can rise above the high school throwback days of the popularity contest, and instead vote for candidates based on issues and beliefs, not smiles, waves and witticisms.
— Presten Peeden is a senior in history. He can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.