Familiarity is breeding contempt of the rock star

America is a more bad-tempered country than it used to be, less inclined to give benefit of the doubt, writes Jurek Martin

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Trust the French to screw up a perfectly sustainable hypothesis. The victory of François Hollande, often compared to a blancmange pudding, in the French presidential elections was a triumph for the plodder over the rock star, which is not the way it often works out in politics.

Admittedly, Mr Hollande did endeavour to create a new image, losing weight, getting trendy new spectacles, better suits and a new love interest. And you can argue that Nicolas Sarkozy was a faux rock star – as they say in Texas, all hat, including his marriage to a genuine celeb and a frenetic governing style, and no cattle. But, still, the socialist candidate did not exactly cause the pulse to race, which the incumbent president occasionally could.

America faces a not dissimilar choice when it votes in November. Mitt Romney might have been a rock star in the 1950s, a decade whose values he embodies and before rock’n’roll really took hold. He even looks a bit like the Hollywood idol of the period, Rock Hudson (leaving aside the actor’s sexual orientation). But that was 50 years ago.

By contrast, President Barack Obama is more a product of the current diverse America and not only because of the colour of his skin. He seems at ease with widely different audiences, be they US troops in Afghanistan or college students in the student dive, The Sink, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And, when on form, his oratory can be off the charts, which will never be said of his presumed Republican opponent.

For that reason, Mr Hollande’s victory might encourage Mr Romney, for all that their politics differ. The plain fact is that Mr Sarkozy lost because of his record in office, which is exactly why Mr Romney wants to make Mr Obama’s the issue in the months ahead. It might work.

The problem with this is that the objective criteria – the record, the state of the economy, war and peace, campaign organisations and, increasingly, money – have to be weighed against the subjective, ie how the electorate feels about a candidate, his likeability or not. White men and religious conservatives are obviously not enamoured with Mr Obama but most of the other major demographic components, women, minorities, the gay and the young, still are, if with less enthusiasm than when Obamania ruled in 2008.

How candidates react to the unexpected also matters. The financial collapse in the autumn of 2008 showed Mr Obama at his most quick-witted, displaying a command of the complex that few thought he possessed. By contrast, John McCain seemed at sea, unsure whether or not to back bank bailouts, saying he would suspend his campaign and then deciding not to.

In 1980, the mullahs in Tehran held not only American diplomats hostage, but also the American president. Jimmy Carter’s inability to resolve the problem was a dagger to his re-election heart, while Ronald Reagan’s simplistic nostrums seemed the better bet, justified when the hostages were freed at the very moment he took the oath of office.

Still, history suggests that, factoring out the unexpected, the American rock star normally wins out over the plodder. Of course, sometimes there are elections between the latter, as in 1988 between George H W Bush and Michael Dukakis, while elections in the 1920s were light on charisma, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Probably the last undisputed rock star to lose was William Jennings Bryan in 1896, but that was before broadcasting was born.

Both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson had the touch. Dwight Eisenhower was the bona fide war hero rock star (Adlai Stevenson was to intellectuals but there are not enough of them to win elections); John Kennedy indisputably was in 1960 and so, to a degree, was the new face of Mr Carter over the plodding Gerald Ford in 1976. Mr Reagan qualifies and so did Bill Clinton, both twice. In 2000, George W. Bush was at least more exciting than Al Gore, which wasn’t hard, while four years later John Kerry came up short because, in the end, he could not stir the blood.

On the other hand the familiarity that comes with incumbency can breed contempt and America is a much more bad-tempered country than it used to be, more prone to rush to judgment, less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

So too, it appears from a distance, is France.

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