The OED defines it as "external conduct or personal behavior marked by an air of superiority or defiant or insolent disregard of others," but lately I've heard the word swagger used in a positive sense, usually to indicate that someone moves with confidence, sophistication, or coolness. I'm not sure I can define coolness, that particularly revered American quality, but I think what we're talking about here, whatever name we give it, is something like je ne sais quois, behavior tinged with an intangible quality that makes it distinctive or attractive.
I thought about swagger this past Wednesday after the first Presidential Debate. Staged events where candidates spew canned answers at each other are typically unenlightening, and they say Presidential Debates don't shift polls, but in my experience, people decide who seems more Presidential or competent or likable after they've watched the debates. My girlfriends and I liked how Romney used bullet points in his answers, and more importantly, that he actually answered the questions posed. We liked that he sounded pragmatic and business-like, and that he quoted statistics and studies rather than anecdotes. My mother appreciated "his body language, his aggressiveness, the way he looked right into Obama's eyes when he was speaking." Her conclusion: "he feels like a strong leader." What he said wasn't particularly interesting, nor was it entirely accurate, but like so many others watching, we wanted to see if he had that je ne sais quois. And at least on the evening of October 3, an overwhelming majority thought he did.
So how much does swagger matter, and how much should it matter? What about the fact that Romney moved far to the center? That both candidates twisted facts? That he wants to fire Big Bird?! This game of politics is an odd charade.