Do the Personal Qualities of a President Matter?

One of my favorite things is when people bust up conventional wisdom. That’s exactly what Paul Waldman did with an article titled: Sincerity is Overrated.

You don’t need a president who’s sincere, you just need one who’ll do the things you want.

Even though President Obama’s integrity is one of the things I admire most about him, I think Waldman has a point. And in the process of talking about that, he busts up some more conventional wisdom.

As we know well, presidents tend to keep the vast majority of the promises they make while campaigning, and most of those they don’t keep are merely the ones they tried and failed to do. The actual number of broken promises, a la “Read my lips: no new taxes” is incredibly small. If a candidate says he’s going to do something, he’s probably going to at least try to do it. This is particularly true when the thing he’s proposing is of vital importance to his party. And it’s true even if it was something he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about, but adopted out of political opportunism.

I actually don’t think that is something we know well. The idea that all politicians are liars and break their promises is pretty pervasive. But for the most part, I think Waldman is right.

So if presidents at least attempt to do what they promise while campaigning, is it true that their personal qualities don’t matter? Perhaps not as much as we think.

But there are some ways in which a president’s personality affects us all beyond the promises they make. Here’s how. Did candidate George W. Bush make any promises about what he would do after a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Did he make any promises about what he would do when a category 5 hurricane blew through the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed the levees around New Orleans? Did candidate Barack Obama make any promises about what he would do when the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East? Or when a BP oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico?

The truth is that an awful lot of what makes or breaks a presidency is unpredictable at the time candidates are running for the office. How someone reacts to those situations is at least as important as what they promise to do.

When the unexpected happens, it is a candidate’s personality that drives how they will respond. I would agree that sincerity might not be the most important thing in those situations. But, as was the case with Bush, a knee-jerk reaction focused on revenge turned out to be a pretty big liability after 9/11. That’s why the personal qualities of a president matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.