Personality and U.S. Presidents in the 21st Century

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Liz Flanders
PoliSci 391
Personality and U.S. Presidents in the 21st Century Paper

The presidency of the United States is arguably the most important position to hold in the entire country. The president is the figurehead of the country; the person people look to for reassurance and the person they blame when something goes wrong. Of the forty-four presidents that our country has seen to this day, each of them has their own distinct character and personality. Some will argue that the personality of the president shapes their performance in office. One of these people is James Barber, author of the book The Presidential Character. In his book, Barber makes an argument concerning the impact of personality and presidential performance. He believes that the character of the president matters above all, and through his system of personality types, citizens will be advised in choosing the right president through some clear criteria.

Barber organizes his theory of presidential character into four different trait-based dimensions. The first two dimensions are activity and passivity, measuring how much energy and activity each person devotes to his presidency. The last two dimensions are positive and negative affect, measuring the person’s feelings about what they do as president, whether they experience political life as happy or sad, enjoyable or discouraging. These baselines lead into four basic character patterns – active-positive, active-negative, passive-positive and passive negative. Barber argues that every president of the United States can be placed into one of these categories. Active-positive Presidents would be highly energetic and active, while truly enjoying their duties as president and having high levels of self-esteem. They would be flexible and adaptive to different situations and set specific goals to achieve. Sometimes active-positive presidents can get into trouble from a sense of arrogance and lack of understanding why others do not see things the way they do. Active-negative presidents are also highly active in office, but do not gain a sense of emotional reward or enjoyment from their hard work. They feel a need to dominate over others and are power hungry, pushing the limits of the constitution and refusing to concede defeat. Passive-positive presidents seek affection through being agreeable and cooperative. They have low levels of self-esteem and try to compensate through pleasing everyone. They are very dependent on others and do not challenge the status quo, hoping their likeability and seeming optimism will be good enough in office. Passive-negative presidents do not put much energy or activity into politics, and do not gain any enjoyment from their role in office. They see it as their “dutiful service” to take on the role of Commander in Chief, and have low levels of self-esteem because they feel futile and useless. They have a tendency to be withdrawn and secretive to the public, only involved in politics because they think they should be. Each of these four character dimensions can be applied to any president, past or present. Although each President has had their own decisive way of leading the country with differing personality traits, it is not problematic to place each person into one of these four typologies, given that they are in such general terms.

Currently, president Barack Obama can be observed to fit into one of Barber’s four character dimensions. Although he has only been in office for nearly two years, Obama’s personal character has been a clear and defining aspect of his presidency. Obama wants to achieve the personal goals he sets for himself and see change come out of his time in office. Already, he has put an extreme amount of energy into his presidency, signing economic stimulus legislation to help pull our country out of the recession it was in when he took office. He also went to great lengths to make sure that a major piece of health care reform was put into...
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