Magazine article USA TODAY

The Obama vs. Clinton Sincerity Sweepstakes

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Obama vs. Clinton Sincerity Sweepstakes

Article excerpt

IF ONE WERE TO WRITE a book on this year's presidential campaign, it might well be titled, The Making of a Sincere President: 2008. The appearance of sincerity always has been a crucial, if not sufficient, ingredient in winning the presidency, but the importance of this personal quality becomes magnified in times which particularly are confusing and tough concerning domestic economics and foreign policy.

Ronald Reagan had a sincere persona in 1980, a year similar in many ways to 2008, in which the country also confronted a declining economy and complex foreign policy problems--with the Soviet Union as well as Iran--and it served him well throughout his presidency. Few chief executives have mastered the ability to connect with the electorate as well. One might call it "apparent sincerity"--creating in the electorate the perception that the candidate is not trying to trick or manipulate the voters. It is perceived ingenuousness. It is the opposite of whatever Richard Nixon had that enabled Democrats to label him 'Tricky Dick." A president or candidate may squander this apparent sincerity at his or her own peril. Bill Clinton was able to persuade many voters that he felt their "pain" but, to Republicans and some fellow Democrats, he merely was "Slick Willy" and, ultimately, he lost most of his apparent sincerity in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, culminating in his parsing what the "definition of 'is' is."

How has this sincerity contest played out between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.)? While the outcome of this hotly contested Democratic primary race remains in question, it appears that Obama's campaign can be seen as having run through two distinct phases: rising star and chinks in the armor. Up until the Texas and Ohio primaries, a pugnacious Clinton fared poorly in the sincerity sweepstakes as she faced a calm and seemingly sincere Obama. Early on, Clinton was perceived by some as sincerity-challenged--largely, we believe, due to the Whitewater land deal, Filegate, Travelgate, and a host of other difficulties, some substantive, some not. Her campaign contradictions and others' general skepticism concerning her character have solidified doubts regarding her sincerity among many voters. Meanwhile, Obama's easygoing demeanor, euphemistic criticisms of Clinton, and warm responses to her periodic personal overtures have contributed to the perception of his sincerity.


Jim Morin, winner of the Herblock Prize for distinguished cartooning, captured Clinton's apparent two-faced nature in a Miami Herald illustration wherein he has the New York senator saying at a presidential primary debate, "Let me say I am honored... to be here with the lying, deceiving, plagiarizing, flip-flopping, backstabbing, clueless Barack Obama .... "

In the debate in late February at Cleveland State University, Clinton said of Obama's repeated, unambiguous claim that he "denounced" Louis Fatrakhan's anti-Semitism, that there was a difference between "rejecting" Farrakhan (which she had done) and merely "denouncing" Farrakhan (which he had done), implying--an insincere--rhetorical sleight-of-hand on Obama's part. Obama simply said that he yielded to Clinton's better word choice and "rejected" Farrakhan. Clinton had no retort. She was perceived by many as disingenuous and churlish, while Obama seemed to be sincere, as he showed himself to be quite amenable to her suggestion. When Obama was asked about accusations that Clinton's aides had distributed pictures of him in Somali dress during a rip he took to Kenya in 2006, he simply said he took Clinton's word that she had no knowledge of any such involvement by her aides and that she did not condone it. He rarely, if ever, takes the bait, a strategy that enhances his perceived authenticity and sincerity.

In contrast, Clinton had stated earlier that, "... and you know, no matter what happens in this contest, I am honored. …

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