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The Presidential Image: Contributing Factors & Importance

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  • 0:01 Campaign Image
  • 3:08 Positive and Negative Images
  • 5:07 Examples of Presidential Image
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

A president's public image, or perceived character, plays an important role in the presidential campaign. It also plays an important role in the president's popularity and lasting reputation. This lesson takes a look at the presidential image.

Campaign Image

Take a moment to think about recent presidential campaign figures like Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. If you remember these recent elections, then you probably have certain memories regarding the public images of these presidential and vice-presidential candidates. A public image is the character projected to the public, especially as interpreted by the mass media.

Impressions play an important role in the campaign. The candidates take on a certain character or persona during the election season. This is the time period leading up to a presidential election, which can last up to two years. They use analysts, strategists, consultants, and stylists to carefully cull an image that will hopefully connect with the voters and last throughout the presidency.

For example, President Dwight Eisenhower served during the early days of television. He established a confident and well-liked radio personality but needed to carry that image over into television appearances. He consulted movie star and producer Robert Montgomery to coach him before public addresses. Montgomery also improved the staging and production of the White House to better suit television appearances. During the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate Al Gore hired a feminist author to improve his appeal with women voters. Among other tips, the author allegedly advised Gore to wear more earth tones in order to 'soften' his image.

Presidents and presidential candidates want to display both the visual image and the personality that best resonates with the public. Often, simple likability matters much more than a candidate's political attitude. Consider Obama's 'Hope' poster. He was portrayed as an authentic symbol for change, for heading in a different direction, and ushering in a new era where an African American man could be president. How about Palin's 'hockey mom lipstick' comment? She was portrayed as relatable, friendly, a small-town mom and wife who successfully ran the state of Alaska while balancing home and family.

Do you remember McCain as the war hero and former P.O.W.? He was portrayed as strong, honest, patriotic, and a seasoned political figure. He was 72 at the time of the campaign, so his consultants spent a great deal of time portraying him as energetic and competent through the use of body language, clothing, and makeup. How about Romney? Do you remember that he's Mormon and has five successful sons? He was portrayed as a family man and a wealthy and skilled businessman who capably led the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Positive and Negative Images

Photos, video, and words can help paint a positive or a negative presidential image. For example, during George H.W. Bush's campaign for presidential reelection in 1992, a photo surfaced of him appearing bewildered at the use of a supermarket checkout scanner. The scanners had been in use for several years. Though he was our current president, the photo furthered a negative image. The highly-publicized situation left a damaging view, or off-putting impression that he was too old, or at least too old-fashioned, to relate to everyday Americans. It also furthered an image that he was out of touch with current economic hardships. Despite enjoying a high approval rating for his job while in office, his reelection bid quickly lost steam and the younger Bill Clinton ultimately defeated him.

Clinton, on the other hand, was portrayed as youthful, popular, and even hip. During campaign stops, he publicly played a saxophone and danced to popular music. During his presidency, this youthful image eventually got the best of Clinton. In 1998, while serving his second term, Clinton was involved in a political scandal involving an inappropriate relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern. A political scandal is simply a form of political corruption, in which politicians or government officials are accused of engaging in illegal, corrupt, or unethical behavior. Clinton's image turned from playful and relatable to dishonest, desperate, and petulant. Though he retained the presidency, he faced both a Senate trial and impeachment proceedings due to the statements he made denying the affair.

Examples of Presidential Image

Let's take a look at some other famous examples of presidential images. A president's image continues to shape our views well after he or she leaves office. President John F. Kennedy was recently ranked the 'most adored' and 'admired' president despite having been assassinated over 50 years ago. Kennedy enjoyed a 70% average presidential job approval rating while in office, which remains the highest to date. The presidential job approval rating was established in the 1930s. It's based on a Gallup poll, and designed to gauge public support for the president during that president's term in office. For reference, Obama's average job approval rating, as of November of 2013, was just 49%.

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