Presidential character

6 June 2016

Presidential Character
One of the subjects in political psychology is Presidential character. Author James D. Barber in his book The Presidential Character (1972) uses psychobiography to explain the personalities, style, and “character” of the modern presidents while attempting to avoid the Freudian psychoanalytical focus on the concepts of ego and superego (Cottam p25). The typology used by Barber to distinguish presidential character is one of the most well-known and widely used in political psychology. Presidential character was later given an additional perspective in the article written by Michael Lyons titled “Presidential Character Revisited”. The article written by Lyons concluded with an all-embracing Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) analysis of President Clinton’s leadership style. Barber also uses Clinton as an example using his typology.

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The exploration and analysis of presidential character is important in predicting the success and the effectiveness of a president and the reaction of the public to the president. The analysis of presidential character can help to predict voter outcome for future presidents as well as how supportive the public will be to the president and his policies. James Barbers typology is controversial, but it is based on the theory that presidential character and personality are extremely important in determining how successful a President is in office. Barbers argument comes in levels, first, a president’s personality is an important shaper of his presidential behavior on nontrivial matters. Second, presidential personality is patterned.

His character, world view, and style fit together in a dynamic package understandable in psychological terms. Third, a president’s personality interacts with the power situation he faces and the national “climate of expectations” prevailing at the time he serves. The alteration, the quality or lack of it between these external factors and his personality sets in motion the underlying forces of his presidency. Fourth, the greatest way to predict a president’s character, world view, and style is to see how they were put together in the first place. That happened in his early life, crowning in his first independent political success (Barber p19).

Barber argues that personalities should not be studied as a set of individual traits that differ from president to president. Instead personality is a matter of tendency in which traits such as aggressiveness, detachment or compliancy are processed by all presidents but in differing amounts and combinations (Cottam p26). The components of presidential personality include character, world view, and style.

Style reflects the typical way a president performs political roles of rhetoric, personal relations, and homework. World view consists of the leader’s politically relevant beliefs regarding social causality, human nature, and central moral conflicts of the time. Character is seen as the way a president “orients” himself toward life and his own merits. Barber uses a pschobiographical approach to trace the sociological development within presidents using the three components of personality from their early lives through their first independent political successes.

The first political success is pattern setting. It gives the leader a model of successful action and positive feedback (Barber p5). Barbers typology discuses presidential character or the basic stance a man takes toward his presidential experience as reflected on two basic dimensions (1) the energy and effort he puts into the job active or passive (2) the personal satisfaction he derives from his presidential duties positive or negative (Cottam p27). When Barbers typology is applied it leads to generalized predictions of behavior and style in office.

Energy put into the Job Personal Satisfaction
Positive Negative Derives great personal satisfaction and is highly engaged (Examples: Jefferson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton) Derives little personal satisfaction yet is highly engaged (examples: Adam, Wilson, Hoover, Johnson, Nixon) Enjoys great personal satisfaction from the job, but puts little energy into it (Examples: Madison, Taft, Harding, Reagan, G. W. Bush) Derives little personal satisfaction and puts little energy into it (examples: Washington, Coolidge, Eisenhower)



When applying Barbers typology to Clinton it is concluded that he falls into the active-positive category. Clinton was actively engaged personally in the details of policy making on the day to day basis while he genuinely enjoyed his presidential duties and responsibilities. The predictions for this type of personality are that such individuals want to achieve results and direct much of their energy toward achievement while tending to be self-respecting and happy, are open to new ideas, flexible and able to learn from mistakes, and tend to show great capacity for growth in the office (Cottam p25). Barber defines an active-positive presidents, such as Clinton, as a relationship or a consistency, between much activity and the enjoyment of the presidential duties thus indicating a relatively high self-esteem and relative success in relating to the atmosphere.

The man shows an alignment in the direction of productiveness as a value and an ability to use his styles flexibly and adaptively. He sees himself as developing over time toward relatively well defined personal goals growing toward his image of himself as he might yet be. There is an emphasis on rational mastery. This may get him into trouble and he may fail to take account of the irrational in politics (Barber p96). Contrasting Clinton, George W. Bush would likely fall into the category of passive-positive. Bush was less personally engaged in the formation and making of policy, but who greatly enjoyed being president. Passive-positives are described as being after affirmation, support, or love from their followers, while simultaneously showing a tendency for policy drift, particularly in times of crisis, in which you would expect to see confusion, delay and impulsiveness (Cottam p25).

Barber defines the passive-positive president, such as Bush, as the receptive, compliant, other-directed character whose life is a search for affection as a reward for being agreeable and cooperative rather than personally assertive. The contradiction is between low self- esteem and a “superficial optimism”. A hopeful attitude helps dispel doubt and elicits encouragement from others. Passive-positive types help soften the harsh edges of politics. But their dependence and the fragility of their hopes and enjoyments make disappointment in politics likely (Baber p95).

According to Lyons, Barbers typology is the most popular and “influential” study in political psychology, but it has been criticized greatly due to its simplicity. Lyons revolves his analysis of presidential personality with the well-established personality typology, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI includes four scales of preference variation. The preferences anchoring the opposite ends of the scales are psychologically contradictory, so that the expression of one preference on a scale inherently precludes expression of the opposed preference. The four scales are Introversion vs. Extroversion, Sensing vs. Intuition, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving (Lyons p794). People may express these preferences in any combination, resulting in 16 MBTI personality types altogether.

Given the complex nature of the presidency, the shifting demands of the office, and the challenges associated in measuring presidential effectiveness, it may be impractical to search for a broad pattern of association between MBTI types and presidential effectiveness. (Lyons p799-806) Lyons applies his typology to determine President Clinton’s MBTI. Lyons relied on David Maraniss’s First in His Class (1995) greatly when it came to determining Clintons MBTI. His MBTI predictions were extroversion, intuitiveness, feeling, and perceiving. In sum, Clinton appears to be an ENFP type, and decisively so on all four scales. The MBTI literature offers several predictions about the ENFP personality. Some of the information from the predictions the most central prediction which is, ENFP types seek close attachments to other people, and they are very adept at establishing such attachments. ENFP types tend to be disorganized and indecisive.

The disorganized and undisciplined character of the Clinton White House, during the first year at least has already become legendary. (Lyons p807) Considerable evidence indicates that several dimensions of President Clinton’s leadership style conform to the predictions of MBTI theory. Most fundamentally, attachments to other people and discomfort with rigid structure appear to shape his approach to the office.

He led with his instincts and with his heart more than with an organization chart. He was sociable, spontaneous, and he feared disappointing others. He struggled with time allocation, priorities, and decisions during his presidency. He owes a great deal of his successes to his adaptability, charm, and perceptive intelligence. President Clinton’s MBTI type does appear to predict several aspects of his leadership style correctly, but it does not provide a comprehensive perspective on his personality or on his leadership. Lyons states, “At best, this study simply establishes that certain patterns of consistency exist between the personality of young Bill Clinton and the leadership style of President Bill Clinton” (Lyons p806).

The psychology behind Barbers theory was to create a framework that could be used to categorize a president’s psychological tendencies and then use that categorization as an explanatory and predictive tool. Lyons tried to do the same with his use of the MBTI. Both Barber and Lyons have used aspects of presidential character and personalities to make assumptions and analyze the effectiveness of presidents and to determine how a presidential candidate will act as president if he were elected.

If these typologies and methodologies were without flaw it would be a way to use a candidates past behaviors in order to accurately predict what type of president he will be. Inevitably that is what both men were trying to accomplish in their experiments, but with every theory and experimentation come criticism and flaw. While both typologies are not completely accurate both do a remarkable job at helping people to analyze their presidential candidates and current president.

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