A Battle of Style and Gender

Good politicians are no different from good actors. Their success lies in their ability to move the crowd into believing their presentation and acting. As a veteran actor so often is able to lead the audience to believe that the actor and the character he plays are one, a good political leader also possesses the bewitching charm which can, at least temporarily, make the audience believe that he and the heroic character he portrays are one. The only difference is that in acting, the character is created from script, while in a political presentation, the character is one that is projected onto the politician by the audience’s imagination.

Judging from the 60 Minutes interview, it seems that Obama’s presentation is “more believable” than Clinton’s. The killer is the former’s natural beaming smile that shines steadily through an almost poignant face. This moving image of his is the winning ace. The audience wanted to see a character that projects hope and inspires faith. He has delivered.

His greatest asset is the ease and fluidity with which he poses, speaks or answers questions. His sincerity just flows naturally. As the U.S. media lust after a good story and the electorate hunger for change, said Steve Kroft (Obama’s interviewer), Obama’s ability to grasp the issues, read the public mood and turn Democratic boiler-plate into political poetry has made up for his lack of executive experience. This innate talent and poetic style of his probably has done the most to win the public over. As for his lack of executive experience which Kroft gently reminded him of, he casually brushed it aside by pointing out that many companies were around before Google, but Google performs.

Clinton comes across as cool, pragmatic and composed but may be too cool for her own good, as coolness takes away sincerity and makes a presentation that much less credible. But her chief problem is the struggle between a male role and a female role. She was seen to use tears as her weapon and to have said that being a mother came first for her, which would clearly label her as feminine. But she was also shown to maintain an aggressive style as would befit a male, as the opinion polls show that she would be a better Commander-in-Chief than Obama. When Katie Couric (Clinton’s interviewer) asked her whether in some dark moments she might not think that she would fail despite all her hard work and efforts, she replied that she always believed in herself winning and that she never lacked stamina. It is almost painful to see her try to hide her vulnerability under a male-like stoic front. The problem is: the audience is a bit confused as to her gender role. People probably have less problem with identifying Wu Yi as a male-like politician than with Clinton. For all her sagacious advice given to Bill Clinton when she was First Lady, her image as the woman behind Bill somehow has stuck.

Both Obama and Clinton claim to be victimized by his/her opponent. Obama says he is the underdog, as there is much affection among Democrats for the Clinton brand and that Clinton has more institutional support. Clinton says that the media is tougher on her than Obama. There may be equal truth in both their claims, but the way Obama says it, with his deeply pensive and almost sad facial expression, seems set to touch more hearts.

Does age and lifestyle matter in politics? If politics is about change, it probably does, because the very word “change” resonates with action and vitality. Obama told Kroft that he plays basketball every morning to maintain fitness, while Clinton told Couric that she eats hot peppers and vitamins to stay energetic. With an age difference of 14 years, Obama has the obvious advantage over Clinton. But it is his vigorous athletic lifestyle versus Clinton’s seemingly more sedentary and feminine one that makes a material difference.

While it may be said that Obama seems to have the upper hand when it comes to style and presentation, it should also be noted that at the outset it is less than a level-playing field in that Clinton, as a female, has had to deal with her gender role in a male-dominant political world, while Obama does not have this complication. The conflicting signals that she sends out can perhaps be explained by this passage in “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir:-

“Many women, in order to show by their successes their equivalence to men, try to secure male support by sexual means; they play on both sides, demanding old-fashioned respect and modern esteem, banking on their old magic and their new rights. It is understandable that a man becomes irritated and puts himself on the defensive; but he is also double-dealing when he requires woman to play the game fairly while he denies her the indispensable trump cards through distrust and hostility. Indeed, the struggle cannot be clearly drawn between them, since woman is opaque in her very being; she stands before man not as a subject but as an object paradoxically endued with subjectivity; she takes herself simultaneously as self and as other, a contradiction that entails baffling consequences. When she makes weapons at once of her weakness and of her strength, it is not a matter of designing calculation: she seeks salvation spontaneously in the way that has been imposed on her, that of passivity, at the same time when she is actively demanding her sovereignty; and no doubt this procedure is unfair tactics, but it is dictated by the ambiguous situation assigned her.”

With the common goal being to revive the “American Dream”, a poetic styled politician finding better rapport among voters than a cool pragmatic one is not surprising. But it is amazing to see that the sex struggle that Beauvoir wrote about in 1949 is still very much at play in 21st century America and may unfortunately be a drag on Clinton’s campaign.