John Rentoul: The key to leadership? Personality not policy

Why does Barack Obama remain popular in spite of his left-wing policies, and what are the lessons for British politicians?
Click to follow

Let us play word association. Barack Obama. David Davis. Wait a moment: the next president of the United States brings to mind the libertarian loner of the pointless by-election? Well, it seems like an unlikely connection, but allow me to explain what they have in common. The next president and the former next Home Secretary are both popular despite espousing unpopular policies.

By rights, Barack Obama's campaign ought to be sinking faster than Madonna's net worth. Since Hillary Clinton curtsied to the inevitable and admitted that Obama would be the Democratic nominee, Obama has been hit by wave upon wave of negative headlines.

Jim Johnson, appointed to chair the committee to advise on the selection of a vice-presidential candidate, had to resign when journalists pointed out that he was connected to a mortgage company involved in the sub-prime scandal. Obama joked lightly about having to appoint someone to vet the vetters, and moved on.

Then Obama went back on his promise to avoid private donations altogether in the general election campaign, and to rely solely on the public subsidies designed to keep politics clean.

John McCain, the Republican, said he would agree to a non-proliferation treaty by which both candidates undertook to limit themselves to public money. But Obama said no, having established during his primary battle with Clinton an extraordinary internet funding operation that has already raised a quarter of a billion dollars. Instead of damaging him, the betting markets rated Obama more likely to win in November.

When the oil price jumped again, Obama failed to feel the pain of a nation weaned on gasoline, saying only that he would have preferred a more "gradual adjustment". When McCain said he wanted more offshore drilling for oil to increase US production, which opinion polls suggest that Americans overwhelmingly support, Obama said no. Despite that, the same national opinion polls showed that Obama's ratings were unaffected. He is still an average of six points ahead of McCain.

Dick Morris, the former adviser to Bill Clinton, calls him a Teflon candidate. He points out how deftly Obama diverts attention from his left-wing policies, which all the polls say ought to be poisonously unpopular, by foregrounding his personality. Last weekend, Obama seemed to take a risk by referring directly to his race and to suggestions that he was Muslim. He said the Republicans would try to make people afraid of him by saying: "He's young and inexperienced, and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

But, as Morris points out, Obama can talk about "his religious views and his optimism about America and his embrace of diversity" all day, and people listen, adoringly spellbound.

McCain's task is to try to focus the attention of voters on Obama's policies instead. Throughout the primaries, it was occasionally remarked in slightly puzzled tones that he was the most "liberal" (translation: left-wing) main-party candidate for the presidency ever. And it is true. On the spectrum of tax and spend issues, Obama is far to the left of the normal centre of gravity of American politics. Indeed, his policy platform is more left-wing than that presented to the British electorate by any main party since Labour under Neil Kinnock in 1987.

Obama would put the higher rate of income tax back up from George Bush's 35 per cent to Clinton's 39.6 per cent – but then he would add payroll tax, which is a bit like our National Insurance contributions. Opponents add up all the tax changes that he has proposed or considered and come up with a figure for an effective marginal tax rate of 60 per cent on incomes over $250,000 a year.

On top of that, Obama wants to raise capital gains tax and the tax on dividends – all the kind of policy that ought to act like a repelling magnet on the American swing voter. Yet it hasn't seemed to matter.

Perhaps it will start to matter now that the general election campaign is beginning in earnest. I suspect that the tax plans may be "fine-tuned" before the Democratic Convention in Colorado in August.

And last week Obama took a stringently conservative line on two Supreme Court rulings. On Wednesday, the Court ruled by five to four against the death penalty for raping a child – Obama disagreed. On Thursday, the Court decided by five votes to four to uphold the absolute right of Americans to keep firearms – Obama supported the decision.

Even so, his positions on all the key markers of American politics, from abortion to zoo-logy, remain well to the left of the average voter, as well as being to the left of John Kerry, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate four years ago. But what matters is Obama's personality.

Which brings me to the word association. On Friday, he was on Fox TV and Alexis Glick, the presenter, asked him to play a game of word association live on air. "Go ahead," said Obama. It seemed trivial, but he did it with style. She said, "Iran"; he said, "Threat". She said, "Exxon Mobile"; he said, "Profitable". She said, "Senator John McCain"; he said, "Honourable".

This is not to say that David Davis has Obama's effortless poise and presence that makes him such an outstanding candidate. But Davis's quixotic gesture in standing down to force a by-election appeals to people outside the Westminster village because it seems to be an act of self-sacrifice. Which it is, although not in the way that people thought: he did not put his future as an MP at risk, but he threw away an 80 per cent chance to be Home Secretary in a Cameron government.

What is important is that people approve of it because it is a stand on an issue of principle – even though they disagree with Davis on the principle.

Most voters in this country support the detention of terrorist suspects for up to 42 days without charge; most feel reassured by CCTV, and most are glad that so many murderers and rapists have been convicted, even if we may be uneasy about the DNA database that made it possible. Yet a majority also found much to admire in Davis's tenacity in holding the opposite views.

A large part of political leadership, therefore, is about personality rather than policy. It is no use, therefore, Gordon Brown hoping that he will eventually be given credit for getting policy right – or for pointing out that some of Cameron's policies make no sense. People may eventually agree with Brown's policies – although even that is debatable – but he is now in the unhappy position that the Tories occupied in the years BC, Before Cameron. People might like a policy in the abstract, but be opposed to it once they know that Brown is proposing it.

An extreme example of this phenomenon occurred before the big Commons vote this month, when one Labour MP was heard to declare: "I don't give a stuff about 42 days, but I'm tempted to vote against it if it will help force Gordon out."

Brown tried last weekend to draw a distinction between personality, which he defined as a politician asking "What do people want to hear and how can I express it?" and character, which, he said, meant one who declares "This is actually where I stand".

But it is a distinction without a difference. Obama, Davis and Brown have all taken stands at odds with public opinion – Brown perhaps least of all – and thus have "character" rather than "personality" in that false dichotomy. But people like the character shown only by Obama and Davis.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: