When examining the nature of the presidency, we have discussed the importance (or lack there of) of presidential character — the personal and psychological characteristics of the men who have served in the office. In the course of that discussion, we assessed and criticized the most famous (infamous?) effort in that vein: James Barber’s “Presidential Character,” which schemes presidential character in a two-dimensional (four category) typology. One dimension is active/passive, assessing essentially whether they are looking to use the office to accomplish political goals, and the other dimension is positive/negative, essentially refering to their personality (dour and tending toward paranoia versus optimistic and cheery). One of our criticisms of the application of this scheme to presidents by Barber is that it suffers greatly from confirmation bias –tending to rate presidents in the ‘good’ categories based on partisan disposition rather than an objective assessment of their character. See, for example, John Dean’s effort to place Mitt Romney in the Active/Negative category along with George W. Bush. The scheme also suffers from “backfitting” — i.e. identifying bad characteristics with failed presidencies (Nixon) or those which ended badly (LBJ) and identifying good characteristics with those that were successfull (FDR).
All that said, a new article at the National Interest looks at President Obama’s presidential character and attempts to place him in the typology based on his behavior in office over the past five years. In the author’s view, President Obama belongs in the Active / Negative category — the ‘worst’ category for presidents.
Here he makes the case that Obama belongs in the Active category:
He took office with big ambitions and a manifest resolve to change American society in very significant ways. This was manifest particularly in his Affordable Care Act, designed to transform the way we dispense health care in America and increase federal intrusion into a sixth of the current economy (projected to be 20 percent of the U.S. economy by 2020). And he was willing to do this without a single opposition vote, which reflected an almost breathtaking political audacity. His energy bill represents another reflection of his ambitions, and multiple actions in the regulatory realm (some of questionable constitutional validity) reflect also Obama’s preference for America as a European-style social democracy. Since the country has generally shunned such a course since the early years of the New Deal and a brief spurt of federal activity under Lyndon Johnson, Obama’s presidential temperament clearly falls into the Active category.
And here he makes the case he belongs in the Negative category:
But is he a Negative or a Positive? The Positive presidents relished the job and the grand necessity to move events by persuading, cajoling, bargaining with and perhaps occasionally threatening other players in the political arena. The great Active-Positive presidents all had fun in the job. They showed a zest and enthusiasm that was infectious, not just with the American people but, more significantly, with members of Congress.
We sure don’t see any of that with Obama. Edward Klein, a former New York Times Magazine editor and author of a book on Obama called The Amateur, has written that Obama “doesn’t learn from his mistakes, but repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe.”
Do we see any presidential zest or political joy in this chief executive? Hardly. He seems always stern, beset, frustrated and angry. It’s as if he expects the opposition to join him in whatever he wants to do for the simple reason that they should want to make his life easier. After all, he’s the president.
Here’s how Barber describes the Active-Negative: “…relatively intense effort and relatively low emotional reward for that effort. The activity has a compulsive quality…His self-image is vague and discontinuous. Life is a hard struggle to achieve and hold power, hampered by the condemnations of a perfectionistic conscience. Active-negative types pour energy into the political system, but it is an energy distorted from within.”
Nothing illustrates this more starkly than Obama’s insistence on shirking his responsibility as president to lead the way out of Washington’s increasingly dire fiscal deadlock, with the government partially shut down and a possible financial default on the horizon. His political petulance is so far from the Positive traits, as defined by Barber, that his categorization as an Active-Negative is unavoidable.
What do you think? Does President Obama belong in the Active/Negative category?