Presidential Candidates Never Seem Presidential

The prospective Republican field for 2012 is dismal. Then again, it always is.

Brendan Nyhan laughs off  a Daily Beast posting on “The GOP’s Lousy 2012 Candidates,” observing,

While Sarah Palin is objectively weak due to her exceptionally high negatives, the rest of the field is a perfectly normal mix of current and former members of Congress and governors with various strengths and weaknesses. What neither Sarlin nor the consultants he quotes seem to realize is that almost all presidential challengers seem flawed in the early stages. It’s the process of winning the party’s nomination that gives the candidates stature and unites the party around them.

That’s precisely right.  In December 2007, few of us thought that Barack Obama had the gravitas to be elected president.  Ditto George W. Bush in December 1999. [Much less a year earlier in both cases — the more apt comparison!]

And, as Nyhan reminds us, there were all manner of reports in late 1991 and early 1992 lampooning the “Seven Dwarfs” who were vying for the Democratic nomination and the opportunity to get trounced by the popular incumbent George H.W. Bush.  By the spring they seemed destined to nominate some boob from Arkansas who was “damaged goods” and “who lacks the trust and affection of a majority of Democrats, not to mention the independents vital for victory.”  But, as some may recall, Bill Clinton went on to not only beat Bush easily but clobber Bob Dole to win a second term.

The presidency is an awe-inspiring job, requiring someone with the presence to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of a superpower, the coolness to make dozens of decisions a day impacting everything from foreign policy to agriculture and energy, and the emotional intelligence to serve as our national cheerleader, conscience, and grief counselor.  Aside from the odd hero general every few decades, anyone who presents him or herself as up to that job looks like a fool.

If the economy doesn’t turn around in the next year or so, Barack Obama will have an uphill fight to keep his job.  But he’ll have one thing going for him:  He’ll be the only candidate in the fray who won’t have to convince people that he could plausibly be president.    All the tittering about his relative youth and experience before he got elected has been rendered moot:  President of the United States will be right there at the top of his resume.  And his 2012 debate opponent, whoever that turns out to be, will be calling him “Mister President” or “President Obama” rather than “Barack” or “THAT one.”   That’s a powerful advantage.

But the next best thing to being president is being a major party nominee for the presidency.  Having survived the brutal internecine fight to make it to the Super Bowl of American politics confers a tremendous prestige.  Aside from perhaps Michael Dukakis, who seemed to actually lower his stature during the general election campaign, all of the nominees in my political lifetime — say, the 1980 race forward — became plausible by the end of their party convention.   Some — George HW Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain — began the race with such strong resumes and reputations that they didn’t need it.   But Ronald Reagan went from B-movie actor and cowboy who shot from the hip to presidential timber.  Clinton was able to show off his tremendous charms, overcoming even rather embarrassing personal scandals.   George W. Bush probably grew the most during his run, going from fumbling and clueless to commanding leader.  John Kerry, who already had the war hero thing going for him, managed to largely shake off the effete rich boy thing and make a strong showing.

I don’t think Palin is salvageable at this point.  Her image is set in stone and the verdict on her is that she’s likable but not presidential.   But none of the other contenders for 2012 — even Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who made reasonably strong showings in 2008 — are particularly well known.   Normal people just don’t bother paying attention early in primaries and it was obvious by February that McCain would run away with it.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Well-reasoned, civil disagreement is welcome.  We’ve got plenty of pro-Palin commenters and at least one pro-Palin front page poster.  But screeds in all-caps are tiresome and likely to get you banned.

  2. John Hall says:

    And RINO IDIOT is probably still wondering why some commentary gets banned. “Typical liberal morons.” Yeah, that’s productive and civil discussion.

  3. Terrye says:

    The thing with Palin is that people respond to her on an emotional level. They like her spunk or her children or the fact that keeps going no matter what people say to or about her. I think that they have not really thought about whether or not any of that would make her a good president.

  4. sam says:

    “It’s the process of winning the party’s nomination that gives the candidates stature and unites the party around them.”
    True. But I suspect there is real fear in some GOP breasts that the primary process this time around will be a bloody affair that might damage the nominee in the end. Dave Weigel argued the other day that, alas, the hoped-for civil war in the GOP (well, hoped for by some of us) ain’t gonna happen. However, that’s within the Congressional GOP. Primary politics are a different universe. Maybe the real GOP civil war will break out when primary season opens.

  5. Kylopod says:

    John Kerry had a double-digit lead over Bush after he emerged from the primaries. After his dud of a convention, for which he received no perceptible bump in the polls, and the swift-boating that attacked his military record which he had made a centerpiece of the convention, and the Bush campaign’s successful depiction of Kerry as a flip-flopper, his poll numbers dwindled. He received a bump after a good performance at the debates, and he and Bush were basically neck-in-neck after that. But it is simply not accurate that he “managed to largely shake off the effete rich boy thing and make a strong showing.” He didn’t shake that perception at all. Failing to defeat an incumbent president with an approval rating below 50 percent is nothing to boast about. A key to Bush’s successful reelection is that he managed to convince enough voters on the fence that however disappointed they may have been in hiim, Kerry would be worse.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    I see the primaries like a PAC 10 football game, anyone can win.  The particulars of what happens during the game makes the difference and it’s impossible to know for sure who will win.  In the primaries a single verbal gaffe could sink a candidate and elevate a competitor.  A bad picture could do the same and that’s why the candidates are micromanaged and rarely shoot from the hip like the Gipper.
    We have also become used to Hollywood presidents who have their gravitas written into the script.  BTW, when is Morgan Freeman going to run?  Obama fit the mold in that regard.  Chin held high, orating with the right pauses and emphasis he looked the part better than some.  I guess we judge books by their covers more than we would like to admit.

  7. ponce says:

    ” In December 2007, few of us thought that Barack Obama had the gravitas to be elected president.  Ditto George W. Bush in December 1999.”
    Shouldn’t that be 2006 and 1996 if we are comparing them to Dec of 2010?
    I always equate “Presidential” with a sense of humor.
    Palin seems quite humorless to me.

  8. ponce says:


  9. sam says:

    “In the primaries a single verbal gaffe could sink a candidate and elevate a competitor.”
    Doesn’t bode well for Sarah Chrysostom.

  10. Wayne says:

    Too true. A alternative would be for people to actually take time and effort to learn about candidates and be willing to vote for those who are not micromanage, groomed, made a gaff, etc. Unfortunately that seldom happens but IMO it may be swinging that way. Only time will tell.

  11. Smooth Jazz says:

    <I don’t think Palin is salvageable at this point.  Her image is set in stone and the verdict on her is that she’s likable but not presidential.>
    This is one of the more measured Palin posts I’ve seen on this site. Not the usual “Palin is stupid”, “Palin is divisive”, “Palin is Polarizing” hate screed quoting biased polls and Palin Haters. The one point I will make is the same one Howard Dean made recently: If Palin gets through the primary process and wins, she has a shot at the whole thing since presumbly she would have demonstarted some competency to get through the gauntlet. As we all can see, nothing will be handed to her.
    Robert Reich & Jimmy Carter seem to agree: It is too soon to count her out as she will have an opportinity to mix it up with her opponents. Don’t underestimate her ability to change impressions if she is able to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate some heft. As I said earlier, some prominent Dems are not buying the “It’s too late for her to turn things around” meme. See my post on another thread:


  12. michael reynolds says:

    Two points:
    1) John McCain began the campaign as a plausible president and ended it as an embarrassment.  I’ve never seen anyone fall so far so fast and then just keep digging.  From heroic to pathetic.
    2) How many of our actual presidents have seemed presidential?  We’ve had some smart ones who ended up being weak, (Carter, Clinton, Obama,) a stupid one (George W,) a competent-but-criminal one, (Nixon,) a lucky, likable but deluded one, (Reagan,) one qualified but hapless one, (H.W. Bush.) In my lifetime none of them have seemed terribly “presidential.”  The last one who fit that bill was Ike.

  13. epistorese says:

    I would agree that it is too early to count Palin out.  But, she seems to have a tough row to hoe in that, like the Bush/Kerry election, the result may be based on who the voters dislike the least.  In that case, Palin’s lightness of being may work against her.  She also has the problem that voters have tended not to elect two dark-horse types in a row.  Palin’s popularity may be Obama’s best advantage coming into 2012, the GOP has several potentially “Reaganesque” looking candidates to take him on.  Sarah Palin isn’t one of them in my view.

  14. anjin-san says:

    The GOP candidates in 1980 were pretty impressive as a group. Of course, that was a long time ago.

  15. TG Chicago says:

    I agree with Kylopod about Kerry and with Michael Reynolds about McCain. But each had their moment of looking legitimate after sewing up the nomination, so it may not invalidate Mr. Joyner’s point.