TOPICS : Barack Obama and charisma

Among this season’s presidential candidates, Barack Obama has clearly had the edge when it comes to that magical quality known as charisma. Pundits of every political stripe have commented on Senator Obama’s “rock-star quality.” After meeting him, even the most jaded political reporters have been known to report that he is something rare and special, the heir to such charismatic predecessors as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

In each generation, a few public figures come along who have a personal magnetism that makes strangers care deeply about them. Call it star power, call it charisma, this infrequent gift is akin to the power that great actors have. According to legend, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was introduced to Orson Welles, he said graciously: “You know, Mr Welles, you are the greatest actor in America.” “Oh, no, Mr. President,” Welles replied, “You are.” What Welles recognized in Roosevelt is that political leadership is a performance art as surely as is acting on stage or in films.

When charismatic politicians such as Obama speak, they are able to turn a room full of strangers into a community rich in shared meaning, just as a great actor creates such a community within a theatre. Whether such rock-star politicians talk about change or healthcare policy, they articulate a vision that those in the audience quickly make their own.

Acting ability is an aspect of leadership in every arena, from the playground to the board room. But it is absolutely essential in national politics, where the only contact the average voter has with the candidate or office holder is almost always filtered through the media. We firmly believe that the charismatic leader’s unique capacity to inspire should not be undervalued. Before they pick America’s 44th president in November, voters should give great weight to what a candidate with charisma would bring to the table. In Obama, we see unusually strong character and good temperament - thus negligible risk of demagoguery. But yes, even voters who find him spellbinding are well advised to satisfy themselves about his (and any candidate’s) character.

A charismatic leader could break through the prevailing orthodoxy that the nation is permanently divided into red and blue states and condemned to bitter partisanship, and build a broader sense of community, with a compelling new vision.

In the past, both JFK and Bill Clinton used their rock star-like magnetism to enhance America’s reputation abroad — despite policy disagreements with other countries. Another charismatic president could start to mend our nation’s tattered global reputation. To be sure, charisma isn’t everything. A great leader needs many qualities — character, judgment, and experience among them. But voters would do well to remember that charisma is more than a way with words and an attractive face. It is a powerful tool that the fortunate candidate who has it can use to repair and inspire a nation aching to feel its greatness. — The Christian Science Monitor