On November 6th, voters will have chosen between two presidential candidates, and two different characters. For hardworking American family values, calmly reasoned decisions, and personal integrity, choose President Barack Obama. (More)

Voting on Character, Part III: A Clear Character Choice (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considered whether and why voters should base their decisions on character issues. Thursday we looked at so-called “irrational” voters who are said to “vote against their own interests.” Yesterday we saw why character issues, not proposed policies, are and should be central in voters’ decision-making. Today we conclude by contrasting the characters of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Being presidential….

More than a few pundits opined on whether super storm Sandy gave President Obama a chance to “look presidential” in the week before the election. I think that question was poorly phrased. Barack Obama is, after all, the President of the United States. He’s not an actor playing a role; his duties are “presidential.”

That said, we discussed yesterday how the voter’s choice ultimately turns on a single question: As events unfold over the next four years, which candidate do I trust to look out for the interests that matter most to me and the people I care about? The answer to that question is about character and “being presidential,” and voters seem to assess that based on three qualities:

  • Values – Does this candidate value the interests that matter to me and the people I care about?
  • Decision-making – Am I comfortable with how this candidate makes difficult decisions?
  • Integrity – Can I trust this candidate to mean what he/she says and follow through on his/her commitments?

It’s important to note that not all voters will evaluate these qualities in the same way. Voters don’t all agree on what interests matter, or which people they most care about. Voters also don’t all agree on how leaders should make decisions. I’m suspicious of decisions delivered with brusque certainty, while many people find that reassuring and even a hallmark of leadership. And voters may weigh integrity in profoundly different ways. The Baffler‘s Rick Perlstein argues that Mitt Romney’s willingness to lie, brazenly and repeatedly, is what proved his integrity to movement conservatives.

While I think most voters look at these same character issues, which roughly combine into what Samuel Popkin called representativeness, voters may and do reach different decisions about who has “presidential” character … and this year the candidates offer a clear and stark choice.

“Too Many Mitts”

Romney’s 47% remarks are the clearest but hardly the only window into his values. His statement last year that FEMA spending was “immoral”, while he proposes a 20% tax cut for the richest Americans, speak volumes about whose interests and wishes he would look out for, and whose interests and needs he would ignore.

As for decision-making, Romney’s rash comments after the tragic attack in Benghazi should give all Americans pause. His statement was crafted hours before there was any clear information on what had happened, and made public minutes after East Coast calenders ticked over to September 12th. Plainly calculated to make political hay on the deaths of four Americans, Romney’s statements then and since reveal the same kind of shoot-first-aim-someday decision-making that typified his Republican predecessor. Romney’s imperious treatment of the press and dismissal of public calls for his tax returns – evidenced by his wife’s “we’ve given you people all you need to know” statement – also echo the Bush administration’s intolerance for dissent.

Yet the Salt Lake Tribune‘s editorial whose headline is quoted above highlights the most glaring character issue with Mitt Romney. As the Tribune‘s editors wrote:

Sadly, it is not the only Romney, as his campaign for the White House has made abundantly clear, first in his servile courtship of the tea party in order to win the nomination, and now as the party’s shape-shifting nominee. From his embrace of the party’s radical right wing, to subsequent portrayals of himself as a moderate champion of the middle class, Romney has raised the most frequently asked question of the campaign: “Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe?”

The evidence suggests no clear answer, or at least one that would survive Romney’s next speech or sound bite. Politicians routinely tailor their words to suit an audience. Romney, though, is shameless, lavishing vastly diverse audiences with words, any words, they would trade their votes to hear.

Simply, Romney lacks integrity, at least as I evaluate that concept. I’m not sure Perlstein is correct that conservative movement media have conditioned their audience to celebrate flimflam artists. Even if Romney’s brazen mendacity does prove his integrity as viewed through the bizarre lens of modern conservatism, polling shows most Americans disagree.

“Obama’s Way”

Conversely, that same poll showed most voters believe President Obama “connects well with ordinary Americans,” and other polls have shown most voters believe he understands their needs and respects their concerns. His impressive first-term record also shows a commitment to and respect for hardworking families. From the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to rescuing the American auto industry, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to his landmark Affordable Care Act, from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act creating the Consumer Finance Protection Agency to the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell and the DREAMers Rule protecting undocumented young adults who have never known another home, President Obama has worked to protect those Mitt Romney and Republicans would callously leave behind.

Yet President Obama has not always seemed like the populist champion, in part because the candidate renowned (and sometimes reviled) for his rhetoric is no demagogue. As Vanity Fair‘s Michael Lewis reveals, “Obama’s Way” is studious and cautious, sober and circumspect:

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

He also recognizes the need to weigh how he makes decisions against what others seek in a leader:

Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

If President Obama has not always feigned total certainty, that is a strength rather than a weakness. He speaks and acts as someone who knows that even the best plan may well go wrong, even the best law may not work as intended. He also accepts the heavy burden of responsibility when things go wrong.

That recognition of his incomplete knowledge is and his willingness to admit that he makes and tries to learn from his mistakes is, perhaps, why so many voters respect President Obama’s integrity. If he changes a position, as he famously did on marriage equality, he does not pretend he had never said anything to the contrary. Instead, he explains why he changed his mind.

Character you can believe in….

These reasons to choose President Obama not about specific issues, plans, or policies. As we saw Thursday, we can’t know what issues will be most crucial over the next four years. And President Obama freely admits that the best-considered plans and policies must be adapted as events unfold. Much of governing, like much of our everyday lives, lies in “muddling through” as best we can … and that capacity for “muddling through” well is all about character: values, decision-making, and integrity.

President Obama shares our values, makes decisions well, and is a man of integrity. That’s character voters can believe in.


Happy Saturday!