What a president ‘looks like’

In advance of the 2008 presidential campaign, many high-profile figures in the media described Mitt Romney as someone who “looks like a president.” It was as if news outlets were thinking of central casting, and imagining who looked the part. Romney — a handsome, middle-aged white man — fit the bill. The media tended not to describe Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama the same way.

Four years later, we’re seeing the same phenomenon. This time, not only does Romney “look like a president,” but so too does Rick Perry. Here’s Richard Cohen’s column, for example, pondering what will happen with the Republicans’ top-tier presidential candidates.

I can think of no reason why anyone who, for some unaccountable reason, supports Michele Bachmann will not move over to Perry. He is her equal in social issues, which is her strength, but he is a much better campaigner — as he showed the other day in Waterloo, Iowa. He retailed a GOP dinner, going from table to table, while Bachmann made a Lady Gaga entrance — rock music, lights, phalanx of security — and just perfunctorily met with the ordinary people she claims both to be and to represent. Perry, who actually looks like a president (also the late Rory Calhoun), will raise far more money and breeze by her. Au revoir, Michele. [emphasis added]

And why does Perry “look like a president”? Presumably for the same reasons Romney does — he’s a handsome, middle-aged white man.

I realize perceptions like these become ingrained over the course of many decades, and these media observations are not intended to be racist of misogynistic. Handsome, middle-aged white men have been the presidential norm for generations. I get that.

But the larger point is this: observers accustomed to the old way are going to have to change their perceptions. I don’t know whether Barack Obama “looks like a president” by the standards of the media establishment, but I do know he is the president, which necessarily changes what it means to look like one. Hillary Clinton may not have been out of central casting, but she very easily could have been elected, too.

It took too long, but the rulebook for what a president “looks like” has been tossed aside. It’s time for some in the media to catch up.