But success breeds bad behavior

With the approach of the fall elections, the spinmeisters are reminding us of the Democrats’ key handicap: Barack Obama supposedly does not come across as a “nice guy” — someone you’d like to hang with.

In asserting this, the bloggers may be ignoring the fact that the public no longer expects our leaders in politics or corporate life to be “nice guys,” as they did in the Eisenhower era. Ike had that nice-guy smile (even though he was a general). Business leaders of that period, like the “suits” in Mad Men, also had that nice-guy aura — they liked to drink, play golf and pretend they were your fraternity mates.

Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed in “The Social Network,” is more representative of today’s corporate presence — a relentless, take-no-prisoners sociopath who enjoys the fact that it’s lonely at the top.

Then there are the two former CEOs running for office in California, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who aren’t exactly mounting a charm offensive. They’re selling themselves as power players, proud of their trail of layoffs. And other CEOs are lining up to support them.

Both remind me of Blythe Masters, the tough-cookie superstar trader of JPMorgan, who famously boasted on a company conference call that “our rivals are scared shitless of me.”

There’s irony in the fact that Rahm Emanuel, the tough-guy aide to the president, now wants to be the successor to Chicago’s Daley dynasty, because the first Daley was the ultimate ’50s nice-guy machine politician. Daley would give you a smile along with a Thanksgiving turkey, but you had to reciprocate with a vote.

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks asserts that Emanuel is “like an urban cowboy, poking his herd of cattle with a stick — every head in the herd gets a poke every day.” Yet overall, writes Brooks, Emanuel comes across as a “warmhearted Machiavellian.”

Emanuel’s brother, Ari, pokes heads in his agency herd and also abjures the nice-guy school of leadership. By contrast, Bryan Lourd, Ari’s chief rival in the agency business, represents a throwback to the Ike-era approach. As one studio executive puts it, “Bryan can charm me into believing I made a good deal even though I know I got clobbered.”

Another champion of charm is Disney’s Bob Iger, who conveys the nice-guy image to all of his various constituencies. But he’s also aggressively realigned the leadership in most of the Mouse’s divisions.

Some companies, like Hewlett-Packard, seem to take pride in their practice of hiring — and firing — abrasive CEOs. When Mark Hurd, a truly unpopular CEO, ankled recently, colleagues were not surprised that he’d been paying a female friend as a company consultant — no one would want to spend time with him who wasn’t on the payroll.

A series of studies cited recently in the Wall Street Journal suggest that nice guys actually are more likely to rise to power, but that authority undermines the very talents that got them there. “People give authority to those they genuinely like,” writes Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley. Even studies of chimps reveal that the ability to forge “social connections” is more important in gaining status than strength or size.

The problem is that once power is achieved, whether in politics, business or the military, bad behavior sets in. Keltner goes so far as to suggest that power causes a type of brain damage to the orbitofrontal lobe — the brain area “crucial to empathy.”

Another academic, Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, concludes from studies that powerful people clearly know the distinction between right and wrong but their sense of authority makes it easier to rationalize away “ethical lapses.”

I suppose all this is good news for President Obama in that voters may no longer expect their uberleader to show nice-guy traits. In my personal trips to the White House during the era of George W. Bush, there were a lot more smiles and nice-guy chats than during frosty visits to the Obama White House. The food was even better back then.

I’d try to analyze what all this means, but I’m preoccupied these days getting my orbitofrontal lobe scrutinized by my family doctor. After all, I’ve got my future to think about.

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