Likability: don't underestimate it

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Who's more likable?

As we near the 2019 Democratic debates, I clearly remember one January 2008 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire — the site of the headline making exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. To re-cap, the debate moderator asked Ms. Clinton whether she thought she had enough personal appeal to win over voters. But before she could answer, Mr. Obama broke in saying, “You’re likable enough.”

Evidently, enough voters thought Mr. Obama’s comment insensitive, and Ms. Clinton won the New Hampshire primary a few days later. Nevertheless, as we know, Mr. Obama won the General Election — twice. And to this day, polls show him as an extremely likable ex-president, along with Abraham Lincoln, JFK and Ronald Reagan.


Likability has become an even more important trait today as we see the president of the United States hurling abusive insults at nearly everyone — near and far.

HAMBURG, GERMANY - JULY 07:  German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Joachim Sauer, US President Donald Trump (2-R), his wife Melania Trump (R), French President Emmanuel Macron (2-L), his wife Brigitte Macron (L), Chinese President Xi Jinping (top R), his wife Peng Liyuan (top C) attend a concert at the Elbphilharmonie philharmonic concert hall on the first day of the G20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. The G20 group of nations are meeting July 7-8 and major topics will include climate change and migration. .  (Photo by Michael Ukas - Pool / Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **

At the Towson Town Center, where I walk for exercise, 87-year-old Marty Martinez is very likable. He is known as “the mayor,” since he is there nearly every morning, sitting on the same chair at the same table across from Starbucks. In addition to greeting everyone, in a perennial good mood, Marty reaches out to people of all ages. For example, last year when he discovered that a young worker at Starbucks had just graduated from college and would be spending a year teaching English in Madrid, Marty took the young man with his girlfriend to dinner at Tio Pepe’s to introduce him to Spanish food.


Then there is Sonny, who, when he’s not whizzing by at the mall (no one could keep up with him), volunteers at Sinai Hospital. Without breaking stride, he always greets me and others by name. Of course, there also is a woman who usually walks alone, looking angry and greeting no one. And there are others who only talk to one or two people. But the world would be a lot nicer if there were more people like Marty or like Doug, another walker, who, before he retired, worked in Parks and Recreation with former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. During intermission at a recent BSO concert, while Doug’s wife Florence and I chatted, Doug was greeting what seemed like half the audience, those he knew and, I am sure, others he didn’t.

On a broader stage, there is a wonderful news photo of likability, showing French President Emmanuel Macron sitting next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in November. Although Mr. Macron has his hand on Ms. Merkel’s knee, this is not a Me-Too moment! They are facing each other, obviously in deep conversation, and Ms. Merkel is grinning. Next to them, President Trump, his hands clasped in his lap, looks angrily into the distance, while Melania looks totally bored.

As for Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel, international allies should share a close relationship, a genuinely likable relationship. Whether it was 9/11 or various wars, we have always depended upon our allies to help us. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has managed to alienate our allies, preferring not-so-likable dictators, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un.

What makes someone more likable than someone else? When it comes to the British Royals, rumor has it that the queen slightly prefers granddaughter Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry’s wife, to granddaughter Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William’s wife. Both young women are beautiful and educated. Perhaps Meghan, once a popular TV and film actress, is more outgoing? Or, as the daughter of a black mother and a white father, does she have more empathy?

Basically, most people like others who are kind and caring, who are honest and loyal, who are tolerant, who are helpful and who always have a ready smile. The Burt Bacharach and Hal David 1965 song says: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Today, in 2019, I think likability would do as well.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is