What Kind of President Do Americans Want? Smart or Tough?

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

When George W. Bush was voted into office the second time around, I read a piece that suggested Americans care more about their leader’s brawn than brains — or rather, we prefer a president who appeals to our lizard brains instead of one that make us reach for the dictionary. And I remember thinking, ‘Really? Can that possibly be true?’

Intelligence had so long been engrained in me as being the most vital trait that I could hardly imagine any other qualification being more desirable for our leadership. But since that time, I’ve come to see that lab technicians aren’t always the best suited for jobs outside the lab. In other words, brilliance may produce better results in a controlled setting, but human civilization is far from that. Leadership is about strength and intelligence and perhaps most importantly the ability to make those under and alongside you willing to push toward a common goal.

However, leadership is one thing. Political leadership is a whole other. That’s where it gets a bit more complicated. It stops being about what makes a leader good, and starts being about what makes a leader electable. The equation changes. Charisma, money, race, religion, background, jaw line — these things all come into play suddenly.

Who we vote for isn’t necessarily the individual with the best understanding of the economy, the best understanding of international conflicts, the best historical or legal expertise — hell, I’m fairly certain there’s a governor somewhere who specialized in, say, wood carving, and is just damn charming. Now, I’ve made room in my definitions to allow that the best leader requires more than a thorough education and a strong analytical mind. People skills are important, and given that mankind is driven to civilized governance in large part by fear of external threats (real and otherwise), strength must be clear and apparent in an effective leader. Which is where we catch up to present day, and a couple of big questions become relevant. Why does everyone hate Obama?

So that’s an obvious doozy. I won’t even pretend to have a full or simple answer to something so general and hyperbolic. And addressing the obvious answers that anyone can rattle off is pointless (Obamacare, the economy, immigration, and inevitably, executive orders). But launching off the idea of the lizard brain and what Americans look for in leadership, I’d suggest that Obama has disappointed many people’s desire for brawn. He’s seen critique for coming across as to coldly academic, too educated to appeal to the everyday American. Mitt Romney gave him a hard time in 2012 for his Harvard education; others have taken issue with his vocabulary.

And when it comes to foreign policy, Republicans especially have given him a hard time regarding his supposed weakness in the face of Russia. Polls also increasingly show Americans view of the U.S. as less powerful and less important globally. Sure, when he went into office, no one wanted him to get embroiled in foreign politics — or at least it was a minority shouting for intervention and aggression instead of focusing on home-field economics and joblessness.

But as Time pointed out earlier this month, the public opinion polls and public reactions are littered with contradictions when it comes to Obama and foreign policy. In an April poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal, 47 percent said the U.S. should be less involved in world affairs, and 19 percent said we should be more active. A Pew Research poll in December of 2013 said that the highest percentage since 1964 believe the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally” at 52 percent.

But then you start to hear Obama being described as “too soft”: too soft on human rights in China; too soft on BP. John McCain chimes in from The New York Times, saying, “Obama has made America look weak.” And Hillary Clinton has her own role, which we’ll get to later. Ultimately, I’d suggest that in part Obama has not been successful because, especially in the latter half of his presidency, he’s become a leader who represents brains, but not effective leadership. Bush was criticized for being dumb, all brawn and no brains. Obama has been criticized as the opposite, tiptoeing around foreign policy.

And while gridlock in Congress isn’t his fault more than it’s been any other president’s fault, it would help his image a great deal if political compromise was possible during his time in office. Standoff and continual congressional infighting is hardly helpful. Divided political climates suggest a lack of unity that leadership should find a way through, one might argue — though again, this is more about image than realistic possibilities (Congress is an inherited problems like so many). Is it a matter of machismo? What does this mean for 2016?

Let’s be real. For some people, it likely is a matter of machismo — but that’s not a worthy generalization. People desire strong leadership, and it could probably be argued that Americans may, deep down, find aggressive leaders who appeal to their primal side preferable. Depending on the individual, that may be mistakenly associated with masculinity, or machismo, or the comparison of a shirtless Putin stabbing a shark with our suit-and-tie president. But I’d like to believe that’s a minority.

And when it comes to aggressive foreign and domestic policy, I’d hazard a guess that someone like Hillary Clinton might be more to our lizard brains’ liking than Obama has been — while still maintaining the intellect good leadership demands in equal parts. I make this suggestion based on her most recent interview with The Atlantic, where she hinted that Obama’s careful, hands-off approach is too hesitant. Her rhetoric has more of an edge to it.

You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” said Clinton. I give Clinton as an example to counteract the more obnoxious versions of this argument you’ll see from people like Bill O’Reilly. I just want to clarify that one does not need to have dangling participles to appeal to our lizard brains.

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