Q:Today Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is riding high, judging from his press clippings, while a year ago the same pundits wondered if he'd be forced to step down. Many leaders face these wild swings of perception: one moment a genius, the next a dolt. Should leaders pay attention to their own popularity - or lack of it?
Machiavelli advised Renaissance dictators that it was better to be feared than loved. They could control fear but not love. In a democracy, being liked is essential to getting elected and re-elected. But elected leaders cannot always control the public's feelings about them. Events may determine their popularity.
Abraham Lincoln tottered on the verge of being defeated for the presidency by General George B. McClellan in 1864 but was saved by General William T. Sherman's defeat of the Confederacy at Atlanta. Winston Churchill, the revered British leader in World War II, was rejected by the public before and after the war. Before the war, the British people wanted to believe they could have peace with Germany, while Churchill told them they must prepare for war. After the war, Churchill's lion-like determination to preserve the empire and his autocratic style did not fit the electorate's demand for more consensual leadership and equitable society.
Barack Obama's popularity peaked when he took office and people could project their hopes on him. Once it became clear that he could not fulfill all these hopes, his popularity plummeted. Doubtless, his advisors will study polls and focus groups to seek strategies to improve the president's popularity, as when Dick Morris advised Bill Clinton to take a summer vacation in the West rather than Martha's Vineyard. But history teaches that unforeseen events may determine a leader's popularity. However, in the words of Louis Pasteur, fortune favors the prepared mind.
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