Cosman: Public perception of politicians’ professional performance versus personality

There is a fundamental difficulty that arises when evaluating human character. On one hand there is a want for an individual to be genuine and “real,” while on the other is the desire for the individual to never act in a way in that may be disagreeable. This dichotomy is particularly true for people consistently in the public spotlight and perhaps most notoriously for politicians.

It is very rare and nearly impossible for a politician to hold both of these characteristics – genuineness and consistent agreeableness. The issue comes up particularly when dealing with politicians’ personality and personal lives. There is a reluctance (and often a refusal) of the public to separate the office from the individual. It is unfortunate that individual character is often given greater weight when evaluating a politician, when in fact the emphasis should be on their service in office.

Americans demand of their politicians an authenticity and sincerity – republican candidate Mitt Romney has had such trouble with the public because voters do not believe they know the “real” Romney. He is too concerned with appealing to a broad population that he fails to seem authentic. I can’t fault him for this, but rather lament the situation itself.

Romney knows he must appear as agreeable as possible to the American public, but this is deterring voters; the fact that he is trying to have broad appeal presents him as inauthentic. Romney is stuck. He loses voters with his attempt at agreeableness but if he were to be genuine, he would lose voters all the same who find him disagreeable.

The concern comes up frequently in regards to the personal lives of politicians. Fellow republican candidate Newt Gingrich has faced questions of extramarital affairs and infidelity. The issue was with his individual character and personal life, when it should have been framed in regards to his political office.

I do not have issue with Gingrich’s personal character, rather his professional one. His infidelity should only be relevant as it shows his hypocrisy as speaker of the house when attacking former President Bill Clinton on his infidelity. Gingrich’s infidelity should only be relevant in relation to his professional performance, not his personal life. Yet the public cannot separate the two.

A politician, I believe, should be judged on his job performance, not his personal life. It is misguided when the American public crucifies a politician for acting personally – unrelated to office – in a way they find disagreeable. If politicians are going to be “real” then they are going to be human. I am willing to forgive aspects of an individual’s personal life I may find disagreeable if their performance in office remains unaffected.

I sympathize with Romney. He is trying to please an American public that holds contradictory expectations of their politicians. He cannot be at once genuine and unfailingly agreeable. There is a failure on the part of voters to segregate the personal from the professional.

There is the argument that with politics the two can never be mutually exclusive – that personal character is inherently reflected in professional integrity – but I disagree. I believe politicians (at least the ones worth voting for) can keep the personal and the professional separate, and it’s time the public does the same.