Presidential behavior: we know it when we see it; and like an obscenity, we recognize a failure when we see it, too. How does this apply to Obama, Romney, Perry, and Bachmann?

Obama often makes the left wail and gnash teeth because he is not progressive enough. He receives criticism for his conciliatory actions, which can also be seen as compromise, capitulation, or caving in, depending on your politics. The right alternately denounces Obama’s tyrranical behavior and then his weakness. Yet what both sides fail to recognize is that Obama consciously follows a strategy of being a unifying force. He sets himself in the middle- or is it outside?- and mediates between legislative factions, often using Biden to work behind the scenes. In short, he behaves like a president without a party affilitation. When combined with his natural demeanor, the tenor of his voice, and measured diction, it makes for a very effective example of presidential behavior. He has found a political tack which matches his personality, so he consistently looks comfortable in his own skin.

Contrast this strategy with the top GOP candidates: Romney, Perry, and Bachmann. (If you’d like to make a case for others, such as Ron Paul, please feel free). Romney does the best job. He looks the part, if looking the part means wearing a suit and tie and still appearing to be in his natural element, and his speech is consistently measured and intelligent. Yet Romney’s words belie his appearance. He represents the corporatist element of the GOP, and does not naturally exude the passion and anger of the far right. “Corporations are people, my friend,” he recently stated, and it was a statement expressed simply, elegantly, and with a smile, a natural reaction to a heckler in an audience. When Romney attempts to play the part of a fiery partisan, he fails. He says things that contradict what most people think he actually believes, things that contradict his previous acts while in office, and most people recognize that. It undercuts his presidential appearance because no one likes a phony, regardless of the politics. Cultivating the far right simply does not work for Romney, and the great question of 2012 GOP politics is whether money and business interests will carry the day. (Hint: always bet on the money).

Perry received a harsh lesson this week in presidential behavior when he suggested the Chairman of the Federal Reserve would be a traitor if the Fed engaged in quantitative easing. Perry followed this with a vague threat about how such people are treated in Texas. His statement turned the flavor of the month rancid almost overnight, generating immediate criticism from fellow Republicans. Presidential behavior does not allow for accusing high officials of “treasonous” acts. Lesson one: you’re always on. Always. It would be a good idea to drop words like “traitor” and “treacherous” from the vocabulary. Like Romney, Perry looks presidential. Unlike Romney, Perry is comfortable expressing the passion, anger, and religious affirmations of the right wing. When it comes to presidential behavior, he knows how to walk the walk, but still has a lot to learn about how to talk the talk, because the presidency involves more than just appealing to one group of Americans.

Bachmann suffers a similar problem. In just a few months she has made huge strides in behaving presidentially, but obviously still has a lot to learn. She has successfully toned down hot rhetoric, and now consistently stresses her approaches to problems as pragmatic and practical. For Bachmann, when it comes to presidential behavior, her greatest asset is also her greatest flaw. It is a constant struggle to rein in her naturally effusive behavior and personality.

It is hard to imagine being under the kind of pressure experienced by presidential candidates. Every word, every gesture is recorded. The microphone is always on, and opponents wait to make hay from the most insignificant gaffe, the slightest slip in the promotion of a presidential facade. Good luck!


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