Presidential Personality Research Paper

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The structure of the American constitutional system and the realities of American politics combine to make it a virtual certainty that the personal qualities of the chief executive will have significant consequences for the nation and the world. The Constitution accords the president coequal status with the legislative and judicial branches of government. Barring impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate, he (and at some possible point she) is entitled to remain in office until the end of his term. Because the occupant of the Oval Office has power to veto legislation and is his nation’s chief diplomatic officer, the commander and chief of its armed forces, and the administrator of its laws, he is a force to contend with even when his standing with the public and Congress is at low ebb.

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One could imagine a nation in which the highest political leader had great formal powers but was of little personal consequence, because that individual was merely the agent of a powerful political party or some other extra-governmental force. That is emphatically not the case in the USA, where the political parties are highly decentralized and there are many centers of power. American presidents have placed their stamp on public policy since the founding of the Republic, but for much of American history the president tended to defer to Congress for the initiation of policy, the federal government played only a modest part in the lives of citizens, and the nation was inactive in global affairs. Then came the Great Depression,

World War II, and the incisive response to these challenges of Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the three terms and three months of the Roosevelt presidency, the USA became a world power and a nascent welfare state, and the presidency itself underwent a metamorphosis. The president replaced Congress as the principal source of legislative proposals; presidents began to make an increasing amount of public policy by executive action; and the Executive Office of the President was created, providing the chief executive with the organizational support needed to carry out his obligations.

The qualities that distinguish one chief executive from another have their greatest potential impact in the realm of national security, where the president is custodian of a vast nuclear arsenal. No president other than Harry S. Truman has employed nuclear weapons, but there have been many presidentially-initiated conventional military commitments, the largest of which have been in Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Persian Gulf in 1991. The president also is a major domestic force, not only because of his formal powers, but also because his great political visibility places him in a unique position to seek public support for his policies.

The two most influential efforts to identify the personal qualities that shape presidential performance are Neustadt’s Presidential Power (1960), and Barber’s The Presidential Character (1972). Neustadt’s book, which has been described as the American equivalent of Machiavelli’s The Prince, is an exercise in political psychology with the emphasis on the political. Taking it as his premise that the American political order places severe constraints on the chief executive, Neustadt argues that a president can best overcome the constraints on him by using his formal powers as levers for bargaining and persuasion and making it evident to the other members of the policy-making community that he has the support of the public and is a skilled, determined political operator. From this it follows that an effective president should be well grounded in the ways of American politics, sensitive to power relations, and self-assured about the merit of his policies and his ability to direct his nation.

Barber’s book is a study of political psychology with the stress on the psychological. Barber identifies five broad determinants of a president’s White House performance. Two relate to the political context—the contemporary power situation (e.g., the partisan balance in Congress) and climate of expectations (e.g., the state of public opinion). The other three bear on the president’s inner characteristics—his political style (habitual way of carrying out his responsibilities), world view (political beliefs and assumptions), and character (the deeper layers of his psyche). In principle, this is an excellent framework within which to analyze presidential personality, in that it reminds the analyst that a president’s actions will be a joint function of his personal predispositions and his political context (Greenstein 1969). In practice, however, Barber’s focus is virtually exclusively on character, which he classifies in terms of whether a president is active or passive in the conduct of his responsibilities and positive or negative in the feelings he invests in politics.

In the resulting four-part classification, the two passive types parallel David Riesman’s distinction between other- and inner-directed personalities. (Reisman 1950). These are the passive–positive presidents, who take their clues from others, and the passive–negative presidents, whose motivations for public service are grounded dictates of their consciences. Neither type, Barber argues, is well suited for the activist demands of the modern presidency. Barber’s two active types echo another important distinction. The active–positive presidents are marked by what Lasswell (1951) refers to as the democratic character structure, which is to say that they are free of emotional perturbations that impede their leadership. The active–negative presidents are of a piece with the class of politicians Lasswell identifies as emotionally troubled power seekers—those for whom politics is a means of venting inner insecurities. As Barber puts it, the active–negative presidents channel great energy into their political actions, ‘but it is an energy distorted from within’ (Barber 1972, p. 9). Examples of such distortions include Woodrow Wilson’s stubborn refusal to make the modest compromises that would have permitted the ratification of the Versailles Treaty and Lyndon Johnson’s persistent escalation of the war in Vietnam, despite mounting protest at home and lack of success in the field.

Barber performs a valuable service by directing attention to the deeper strata of presidential personality, but his assumptions about human motivation are overly simple. Indeed, the very dichotomies that determine Barber’s typology fail to account for important complexities. Rather than being either positive or negative in their feelings about politics, presidents may be subject to mood swings, as was the case of Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Rather than being either active or passive, they may be active in some spheres and passive in others. Thus, Ronald Reagan was a tireless public communicator but had a hands-off approach to the internal workings of his presidency.

Barber’s taxonomy is an example of what A. L. George and J. L. George (1998) characterize as a ‘file drawer’ approach to personality analysis. As an alternative, they propose elucidating presidents and other political figures in all of their complexity, drawing on existing clinical typologies as sources of hypotheses about a subject’s inner dynamics. Theirs is the strategy taken in the most persuasive presidential psychobiographies, including their own sharply etched portrait of Woodrow Wilson (A. L. George and J. L. George 1956), Glad’s (1980) subtle account of Jimmy Carter, and Renshon’s richly psychoanalytic interpretation of Clinton (Renshon 1996).

A related track can be found in Greenstein’s The Presidential Difference (2000), in which each of the eleven presidents from FDR to Clinton is characterized on his own terms but also compared with the others on the basis of six criteria: public communication ability, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. A number of instructive patterns emerge. Only three of those presidents prove to have been consistently outstanding public communicators, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Reagan. In each case the president’s effectiveness was much enhanced by his rhetorical prowess. Organizational capacity proves to have been even less common than eloquence, but it is at least as important. The most dramatic example of what can result in its absence is the chaotically organized Kennedy administration’s failed effort to land anti-Castro insurgents at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

The presidency of Jimmy Carter illustrates the critical importance of political skill for presidential effectiveness. Carter displayed impressive political ability in his rise to the White House, but upon becoming president he resisted the standard reciprocities of Washington politics, with negative results for the success of his program. The presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson offers a complementary illustration. Between November 1963 and the end of 1965, Johnson displayed prodigious political skills, presiding over a tidal wave of legislative enactments. But in 1965

Johnson also embarked on an open-ended military intervention in Vietnam, using his skill to minimize public debate and controversy. What Johnson lacked was a realistic policy vision, at least in international affairs. He failed to establish the precise goals of the intervention, its probable duration, and the likely troop requirements. By 1968 there were a half million American troops in Vietnam at which point Johnson halted further troop increases, entered into negotiations with the communists, and withdrew himself from contention for a second elected term.

The cognitive and emotional qualities of presidents also are central of their leadership. One way presidents differ in their cognitive styles is in their capacity for abstract thinking. Jimmy Carter, for example, had an impressive ability to master specifics, but was unable to embed them in a larger rationale. Richard Nixon, by way of contrast, had an outstanding capacity to envisage broad patterns and possibilities. Before taking office, Nixon established three major international policy goals: extricating the nation from the fighting in Vietnam, arriving at an accommodation with the Soviet Union, and establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the end of his first term he had accomplished them all. But during the same period Nixon initiated the program of domestic political espionage and sabotage which led to the destruction of his presidency.

Nixon was one of several modern presidents who had outstanding cognitive strengths, but lacked what has come to be called emotional intelligence (Goleman 1995), a term that captures the ability to manage one’s emotions constructively, rather than being under their domination. Others include Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. Nixon and Johnson presided over Vietnam and Watergate—two of the unhappy episodes in American history. The presidencies of Carter and Clinton were not marked by comparably dire events, but each of them suffered from the character flaws of the chief executive.

The American political system is said to be one of institutions rather than individuals. But it was not the institution of the presidency that authorized the use of the atom bomb against Japan or led the USA into Vietnam. It was Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. American history is replete with episodes in which presidents took actions that might not have been taken by another White House incumbent, some of them of momentous significance. It follows that the qualities that distinguish one president from another demand close and continuing attention.


  1. Barber J D 1972 The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  2. George A L, George J L 1956 Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study. John Day Co., New York
  3. George A L, George J L 1998 Presidential Personality and Performance. Westview, Boulder, CO
  4. Glad B 1980 Jimmy Carter, In search of the Great White House. W. W. Norton, New York
  5. Goleman D 1995 Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books, New York
  6. Greenstein F I 1969 Personality and Politics; Problems of Evidence, Inference, and Conceptualization. Markham Pub. Co., Chicago
  7. Greenstein F I 2000 The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton. Martin Kessler Books, New York
  8. Lasswell H D 1930 Psychopathology and Politics. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  9. Lasswell H D 1951 Democratic Character, in The Political Writings of Harold D. Lasswell. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT
  10. Neustadt R E 1960 Presidential Power, The Politics of Leadership. Wiley, New York
  11. Riesman D 1950 The Lonely Crowd; A Study of the Changing American Character. Yale University Press, New Haven, CO
  12. Renshon S 1996 High Hoper: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition. New York University Press, New York
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