It turns out Barack Obama was probably right about Hillary Clinton back in 2008 when he famously came to her aid in a most condescending manner. She’s likable enough.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Monday said 40 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Clinton, while 55 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Admittedly, that’s not great. But when you contrast it with her most likely general election opponent, Donald Trump, and his 69 percent unfavorable, 26 percent favorable tally, it has landslide written all over it.
Interestingly, Bernie Sanders is better liked than both of these candidates, with 48 percent of Americans viewing him favorably and 39 percent unfavorably. But it seems as if he won’t win the Democratic nomination, which suggests that many of those who view him favorably can’t or won’t vote for him in the primaries. That makes sense. With Sanders you hear from Republicans some of what you heard about Ron Paul from Democrats, comments like: “Well, he’s honest, consistent and he speaks his mind. I really like him. I wouldn’t vote for him if he were running against two drunk strippers and a 6-foot-tall fascist squirrel . . . but I like him.”
Obama broke in to say, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” in 2008 after the moderator of a New Hampshire debate asked her about voters perceiving her as competent and qualified but not necessarily likable, and she said, “Well, that hurts my feelings.”
When Clinton visited Newsday’s editorial board Monday, I was reminded how different it is to meet many successful politicians in intimate settings.
Top politicians from both parties are almost invariably engaging and fascinating, often funny and creative. But we’ve created a media and political system that somehow makes them seem so awful that, across our nation, voters regularly scream at their TVs as they weep and gnash their teeth, “This? This is the best we can do for elected officials in the United States of America?” I think the problem is the now-constant partisanship and divisiveness. I think when the tone was better, we liked our politicians more.
One on one or in small groups, House members, senators, governors and presidential candidates who come off as abominations elsewhere are often thoughtful, coherent and even delightful, even when you disagree with them. Clinton, who so often comes off as calculated and evasive in debates or speeches, was nothing like that in person. Instead she was quick, warm, wildly knowledgeable and more than willing to answer any question. And that’s coming from someone who often disagrees with her.
You don’t get elected to high office by being dumb or mean or abrasive, usually. You become that successful by being, at least in some way, awesome and likable. With some politicians, that’s always obvious. Even people who hate Bill Clinton generally acknowledge his charm. Obama is likable unless you’re looking for a reason to hate him. John McCain has a raffish lovableness that seems to always peek through his curmudgeon crust. And you could hate Ronald Reagan’s politics, but it was hard not to love his twinkle. That type of politician can shine in any setting.
But in my experience, many top politicians who seem irksome on TV, people like Sen. Chuck Schumer or Sen. Lindsey Graham or Rep. Mark Sanford or former Gov. Mike Huckabee or former Sen. Rick Santorum or Rep. Trey Gowdy are great in person.
The polls suggest Clinton is likable enough to be president. In person, she’s more than that. In person, most of our high-ranking politicians are.
The shame is that we’ve ended up with politics so fractious that it makes the players themselves seem horrid.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.