When people describe German Chancellor Angela Merkel, plenty of phrases come to mind that have nothing to do with her personality.
She’s been a player on the global political stage for decades and Chancellor of Germany for ten years. Adjectives to describe her range from “prudent, pragmatic, and down to earth,” to “resolutely dull.” Merkel, TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2015, is the woman who has almost single handedly kept the European Union together and managed a major global immigrant crisis. TIME’s profile says of Merkel, “Her political style was not to have one; no flair, no flourishes, no charisma, just a survivor’s sharp sense of power ….”
Some call her “Mutti,” German for mama, so there’s an acknowledged warmth factor there, but no one has ever suggested that in order to lead, she would also have to be likable or authentic in the way that American voters apparently need from Hillary Clinton.
When we talk about Clinton, a strong and accomplished woman who has a pretty good shot at becoming the first American woman president, it seems that we can’t get over our bizarre need for some of those flairs and flourishes that we equate with being “likable.” You don’t have to look far to discover the endless lists of articles on this whole ‘Hillary Clinton isn’t likable’ thing or some on-air media handwringing session on whether we love her or love her not, and whether Clinton can win without voters feeling like they could kick back with her with, say, over a nice glass of Chardonnay and chat about the return of The Gilmore Girls.
While recent Pew research shows that voters believe men and women can be equally qualified as political candidates, research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation digs deeper into what that means, concluding that in order for Americans, especially women, don’t consider a woman candidate to be “qualified,” she must also be likable. As for men? No likability qualification required. Can you say “Donald Trump?”
Which all makes me have to ask – what is our problem?
We know the dreaded likability question has dogged Hillary Clinton since she ran for president in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama uttered the now-infamous four word slam, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Fast forward to 2015, and the media are still stuck in likability mode. For example, The Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie recently felt compelled to ask Clinton why she has trouble connecting with voters, ignoring the connections she’s clearly made with crowds who turn out to see her. And cable talking head shows use the topic as regular fodder when it’s a slow news day.
The larger question on this whole is she or isn’t she likable question is this – Why do women voters hold women candidates to a different standard? It’s not about Hillary; it’s about us. I believe it’s because women are so hard on themselves in their daily lives when it comes to living up to our culture-driven quest for perfection, that we insist that a woman leader on national level must also be on the same perfection driven journey for us to believe in her. And if she isn’t, we see that as a judgment against ourselves that we can’t forgive, regardless of how objectively qualified she is.
Americans and Germans may want different things in their leaders. One person quoted in the TIME story said Germans “find charismatic leadership worrying.” Apparently, we can’t live without it … at least when it comes to Hillary.
American likes charisma. And we like the illusion of perfection. We’ve proven that to ourselves with Clinton and Reagan and Kennedy and George W. Bush, even though history told a different tale about how perfect or likable they were. The question we have to ask ourselves for 2016 is whether we can ever get over it and look to candidates’ actual experience and qualifications, especially in a woman who wants to be president?