The Likability Project: If They Call You a Mean Girl, Can You Be President?

Image by Lorie Schaull/Flickr/CC License

If people think you’re a mean girl, can you still run for president?

If recent stories that leaked days before Amy Klobuchar announced her 2020 presidential campaign are the only things you’d ever heard or read about her — which is probably the case with many Americans — you might wonder how on earth “Amy” (as she is referring to herself on her campaign signs) could even think about running for the White House.

As expected, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar announced her presidential campaign this past weekend, complete with an obligatory mid-winter Minnesota snowstorm testing her ability to stay on message while trying not to worry about what all those flakes were doing to her hair!

Until about a week ago, Klobuchar seemed to have escaped the attacks of opponents, as well as the media, about whether she meets the infamous likablity test so many voters and political pundits have for women politicians. Klobuchar is someone who has long garnered praise for her pragmatism and intellect. Not long after she was elected to the Senate, she was called a “rising star” in the Democratic party and was described early in her Senate career by the Huffington Post as the “smartest” U.S. senator. One recent article examining her chances for the White House referred to her as soft spoken and savvy.

Those who praise Klobuchar say she is brilliant and works tirelessly for her constituents, and that she expects the same work ethic from her staff. Those who saw her take on Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing know she’s prepared, pushes for real answers like the former prosecutor she is, and won’t let someone give her the run around.

So, everything seemed good for her on the likability front, that is until reports started to swirl that the announcement for her White House bid was imminent. Then, news stories started appearing contending that Klobuchar was having a problem finding someone to run her campaign because of how poorly she reportedly treats her staff. Some of the stories claim that she loses her temper easily, that she’s thrown things at her staff, and that she routinely berates those who work for her. These stories stopped just short of actually calling her a mean girl or labeling her the next Tracy Flick. But it could not have been helpful to Klobuchar that as she was standing in that Minnesota storm officially announcing her presidential ambitions, that a separate storm was brewing for her thanks to traction that reports of her alleged temper tantrums was getting.

The message was clear — some of the people closest to Klobuchar professionally were branding her as unlikable.

For the 2020 campaign, we’ve apparently moved from just having a ridiculous likability standard to creating a new spectrum of likability. And who will be happier about that than pundits and analysts who will now get to critique women candidates not just on their likability, but also for being upset or angry or even, occasionally, mean — for being imperfect in yet another way — creating more gender-based hurdles in a world where expectations of behavior vary wildly for men and women.

Whether or not voters should consider a candidate’s personality in deciding who to cast a ballot for is moot — they do, whether they should or not. But media coverage of a candidate’s personal shortcomings is not created equal. Women who have White House ambitions get treated differently than the guys do, especially when it comes to whether they have tempers and whether they’ve ever slipped up in how they treat the people who work for them.

We don’t have to go too far back in history for examples of men who’ve gotten a pass, at least in the eyes of voters, when it comes to their personal behavior. In a recent article, Bill Clinton was described as having the “mother of all tempers,” yet we rarely heard about that when he was a candidate or in the White House. The same article says Barack Obama also had a “tightly controlled” temper. And John McCain had a “notoriously volatile temper,” according to a piece written during his 2008 presidential campaign. But these descriptions weren’t quietly passed to the press from someone on the inside days before a campaign announcement in an effort to make them look bad. And that’s certainly what seems to have happened to Klobuchar.

Most of the women I know understand what it’s like to have a bad day at work, and as a result get cast as a mean girl, only to have that be the one thing that lingers when people talk about your job performance or your resume or your professional goals. Men are often given the benefit of the doubt if they lose their temper with staff; women rarely get the same benefit and get called mean girls or worse.

So should voters take Klobuchar out of the running if she can be hard on her staff? Is it a problem if she holds them to a high standard? Is it an immediate disqualification for the White House if a woman candidate sometimes shouts at those she works with and isn’t always the most sunshiney pleasant boss to work for?

Further reporting about whether Klobuchar and all the other women candidates running for the White House in 2020 sometimes lose their tempers or don’t always treat their staffs with kid gloves is inevitable. What is also predictable is that there won’t be nearly as many stories about how male candidates treat their employees or how we should consider them as candidates if they don’t always remember to say “please” and “thank you” or make an offer to do the Starbucks run for their employees. When that happens, that means we’ve gone one step further down the Hillary Clinton likability road and will have created an equally unacceptable likability spectrum.

Can any woman running for the White House survive that?

Joanne Bamberger is a noted expert on the political involvement of women & mothers, and is the author/editor of the award-winning bestseller Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, a book that examined Hillary Clinton & the likability issue. She is one of the first journalists to shine a light on how social media platforms empowered women to become more politically vocal, which led to her first book, Mothers of Intention: How Women & Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. A sought after speaker and occasional TV commentator, Joanne is proud to say she survived the pundit’s baptism by fire of appearing on Fox News more than once. A “recovering attorney”, Joanne has written opinion commentary for a variety of national publications including USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hill, & U.S. News & World Report, & can find her on Facebook at @joannebambergerauthor and on Twitter at @jlcbamberger.

Expert on women & politics. Author/Editor of Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox. Opinion journalist, attorney, photographer

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