Do we prefer fresh faces as presidential candidates?

Bill Maher says that nowadays, a successful presidential candidate has to be a fresh and unfamiliar face. If you wait too long, then something will happen than will tarnish your image and make you unsuccessful

This is not a new theory. Matt Taibbi, in a prescient article back in 2007, wrote about why Barack Obama was an appealing candidate to so many people.

I’ve been on the fence about Obama for more than two years now, ever since his breakout performance at the Democratic convention in ’04. When I saw that speech — an iconic piece of inspired nonsense/political showmanship, one that set flashbulbs popping like Michael Jordan’s virtuoso 1988 dunk contest performance — I knew right away that he would be the Democratic presidential nominee someday, perhaps even in the next election cycle.

[H]is entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on the issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. You can be white, you can be black, you can be Christian, you can be Muslim, you can be from the American heartland or from Africa… you can even, according to his book The Audacity of Hope , worship Norse Gods or bury your relatives according to Hawaiian rituals.

In this sense [of sounding fresh and profound when spouting clichés] he’s exactly like Bill Clinton, who had the same gift. He is exactly what is meant by the term bullshit artist.

There is however a real danger in making your first foray in national politics be such a high profile one and that is that this will also be the first time that the national media will go into overdrive looking into every aspect of your past life and what they dig up may cause problems. This is what Sarah Palin found. If you are an old, familiar face, you may not be so exciting but your skeletons have likely been exposed and dealt with.

So being new on the national scene can be a two-edged sword. You really need the Goldilocks balance: new enough to be interesting but not so new that your past throws up unwelcome surprises.


  1. sailor1031 says

    Of course in an ideal world a decent, honest candidate wouldn’t have all those skeletons in the closet in the first place. It’s just that politics attracts the scammers, the liars, the ultra-egotists, the kleptos while repelling any honest person.

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Whose “we” here?

    Different people look (or sometimes don’t look) at different things and prefer different things in different candidates.

    I think the answer is as so often, it depends.

    Who is the candidate, how fresh are they and what does fresh mean anyway?

    If someone has no history – well that’s suspicious and suggests inexperience and inability to act or do anything significant too.

    I agree with Maher about Chris Christie though – he would easily have been a better choice than Rmoney for the Republicans in 2012. Oh & the bo x of chocolates analogy was a good one too.

    PS. Some of the jokes Maher makes at the start had me cringing eg. the Shirley Temple one.

  3. Mano Singham says


    The skeletons may not be ones that are of a nature that make the person unfit for office but could be embarrassing ones involving themselves or family members. Those things can usually be explained away and fade into obscurity with time but may be awkward to deal with when encountered new in the middle of a high-profile campaign.

  4. DsylexicHippo says

    Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background

    Really? Just about anyone? Like Ted Nugent (and lots like him) for instance? Maybe “subhuman mongrel” was aspirational and I misunderstood.

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @3. Mano Singham : Okay, yes, I will respond and answer your questions there but please give me time to do so. have to sleep and busy day or two ahead for me. I won’t forget but may take a day or three.

  6. jamessweet says

    I don’t think it’s at all clear that one has an advantage over the other. Really, a quantitative analysis would be apropos here. Intuitively, though, it seems like the advantages and disadvantages just about cancel each other out (and indeed, looking at recent presidential victors, well-trodden knowns and relative unknowns seem to do about equally well…)

  7. AsqJames says

    DyslexicHippo @5,

    I suppose it cuts both ways. If you’re a Democrat, left-leaning or otherwise predisposed to look kindly on the Democratic candidate, there’s going to be something you can identify with. If you’re a Republican, racist, or otherwise predisposed to look unkindly on a candidate like Obama, there’s plenty for you to hate on.

  8. sailor1031 says

    Prof. Singham. I agree but I did say “in an ideal world”. In practise I suppose no-one has a history that can’t be transformed into a major liability by malevolent government and prurient, lackadaisical and totally unprofessional media. Witness the recent treatment of Francois Hollande by USA media first in the matter of splitting from his paramour and then the even more laughable treatment of his solo visit to Washington. WTF does any of that have to do with suitability for office?

    The most chilling aspect of the Snowden revelations is that government accumulation of every item of data they can get, whether legally or illegally, – all our phone calls, texts, emails, internet searches, website visits, online transactions of every kind – means that government has an inexhaustible supply of information which can be spun, distorted and misinterpreted to rubbish (or worse) any of us at any time.

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