A Debatable Appraisal

All our effective presidents were expert at public relations, untiring propagandists for themselves and their ideas,” wrote Peter Drucker in his book Men, Ideas, and Politics. “The slickest Madison Avenue outfit is bush-league compared to Thomas Jefferson.”

If that’s the case then Barack Obama, during this week’s highly anticipated first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, clearly was not effective. As a propagandist, Obama, it seems, wasn’t untiring so much as tiring.

Typical of the reaction by the media was a description of the debate in the Washington newspaper The Hill, which found Obama to be “subdued and sometimes listless” while Romney was “vivid and strong.” Even most Obama supporters had to concede that, on this night, Romney was the victor.

Image credit: Flickr/Creative Commons

But does that mean Romney, in contrast to Obama, exhibited the qualities of an effective president? Here Drucker’s answer is less certain. It would have depended on his estimation of which candidate exhibited qualities more like those of an effective persuader (good in a president) or more like those of an effective salesman (bad in a president).

“Our effective Presidents never ‘sold,’” Drucker wrote. “Since the great propaganda binge of World War II, all the black and white arts of ‘creative selling’ have been employed to get the American people excited about politics. Yet we have never been so bored, so uninterested, so stubborn in our sales resistance.” For Drucker, any attempt to introduce the “methods which sell lipstick to the 12-year-old” into politics was bound to be futile.

While the line between persuader and salesman might be tricky to discern, Drucker viewed the essential difference as the one between aiming to persuade and aiming to please. “Effective Presidents have been demagogic; but no effective president has ever been ingratiating,” Drucker wrote. “Every effective President knew that his job was not to reach the ‘mass mind,’ but to stir up the bright boys and girls in his class. Every one knew that the President leads through vision and not through cajolery, through courage and not through popularity.”

Is that a better description of Obama or of Romney? We suspect the answer all depends on whom you support. For as Drucker also wrote: “No one is really ‘in touch with reality,’ if by that we mean complete openness to evidence.

What do you think? What role does—or should—the “sale” play in an effective presidency?