Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

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Comparing Clinton and Obama, Head-to-Head

Catherine London and Aubrey Immelman

March 3, 2008

As voters head for the polls in Tuesday’s critical big-state primaries in Ohio and Texas, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face what may be the day of decision in their bid for the Democratic nomination.

With 11 straight primary victories since Super Tuesday at his back, Obama has emerged as the frontrunner and a force to be reckoned with. For Clinton, tomorrow’s contests could be her final opportunity to reclaim the lead.

As the primary season lumbers on to an eventual nomination, the focus begins to shift from the horse race to the pointed question of what kind of leader a candidate will likely become. An important part of the answer can be found in personality: enduring personal traits that remain relatively constant over time and drive a person’s behavior across a broad range of situations, including, in this case, the seat behind the desk in the Oval Office.

Clinton, Obama head-to-head

To gain a better understanding of Clinton and Obama, we generated personality profiles using a standard assessment procedure developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

The profile revealed that Clinton has a highly ambitious and somewhat self-serving, dominant and controlling, conscientious, dutiful personality.

Highly ambitious personalities have supreme self-confidence, though this tendency may sometimes shade into overconfidence and a sense of entitlement. Nonetheless, these individuals often make effective leaders, due to their bold, competitive nature.

Dominant personalities are strong-willed, commanding, and assertive. Although this is typically regarded as a leadership strength, a potential problem for Clinton is that for some voters these traits may feed into negative stereotypes of women, contributing to her high negatives in the polls.

Conscientious personalities are highly organized, diligent, and attentive to detail; however, they can also be rigid thinkers who find it difficult to make a mid-course correction when a well-made plan falters in its execution. By the same token, as candidates they may seem excessively programmed, which undermines their efforts to inspire voters.

The profile revealed that Obama, like Clinton, is ambitious and dominant, though not to the same degree. On a personal level, the primary distinction between Obama and Clinton is that where Clinton is conscientious, Obama is outgoing and congenial, which makes it easier for him to inspire followers and connect with people.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article (“Senate careers branch differently for Clinton, Obama,” Feb. 26) Janet Hooks examined differences between Clinton and Obama “that could ultimately make them very different presidents.”

With similar intent, the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, in collaboration with McGill University political scientist Blema Steinberg, developed a model that maps out the links between personality and leadership style.

Why they run

Leaders with a personality pattern such as Clinton’s — dominant, ambitious, and conscientious — are primarily motivated by issues of power and to a lesser degree by ideology.

They are highly assertive and extremely confident, with a strong belief in their personal talents and leadership ability, as evident in Clinton’s remark last August at an AFL-CIO forum in Chicago:  “If you want a winner that knows how to take them on, I’m your girl.”

These leaders also exhibit a controlling, perfectionistic orientation — an aversion to leaving anything to chance. As LA Times reporter Hooks noted in her article, Clinton “chose to build a reputation as a skilled insider” who “mastered the levers of Senate power,” and “surprised her colleagues with her diligence.”

Leaders with a personality pattern such as Obama’s — ambitious and outgoing — are primarily concerned with issues of self-validation. Despite their strong belief in themselves, they enlist pragmatism as a strategy for ensuring their own success and political ambition.

As Obama supporter and former Illinois state representative Paul L. Williams told the New York Times last July: Obama “came with a huge dose of practicality.” This quality comes into play, Hooks notes, in terms of “Obama’s focus on broad themes and overarching issues.”

Measuring up to the job

Successful executive leadership requires the officeholder to strike a balance between goal-directed policy achievement and process-oriented organizational survival.

Clinton’s personality pattern suggests that as president she would be more goal-directed, with a strong interest in solving policy problems effectively and accomplishing ideological objectives, and less interested in maintaining good relations among colleagues.

Obama’s personality pattern suggests that as president he also would be goal-directed, but that this tendency will be tempered by his outgoing orientation, leading him to place a higher premium than Clinton on process-oriented relationship maintenance, even if it comes at the expense of achieving short-term policy objectives.

That attribute served Obama well as a senator who skillfully maneuvered his way around Washington, forming friendships with politicians across party lines. In the process, he cemented a reputation for seeking consensus and being receptive to the views of those around him, regardless of political persuasion.

Handling people and the press

In the information age, mass media play a key role in national politics. Despite coming under fire as an idealistic, naïve candidate, “heavy on rhetoric and light on policy,” it’s hard for the media to ignore Obama’s rousing speeches and captivating rhetorical style. From his first moments in the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appeared polished and articulate, projecting the trademark charisma since showcased behind podiums across the country.

Sen. Clinton has been notably less successful in this regard, due in part to a strong drive to control the image projected by the media. In short, highly dominant leaders like Clinton tend to be less cooperative and accessible to the media, and therefore less likely to enjoy harmonious media relations.

A critical ingredient of successful executive leadership is the president’s skill in implementing policy decisions. In that regard, presidential personality is key.

Clinton, as a strong-willed, confident personality, can be expected to articulate and defend her policies personally rather than relying on others. The equally confident Obama will be similarly inclined.

There may, however, be a slight distinction in the sense that the more outgoing Obama would probably show a stronger preference for directly engaging the public, whereas the more conscientious, less extraverted Clinton would be less likely to enjoy this aspect of governing and therefore give senior administration officials a larger role in articulating and defending her policies.

Given these important distinctions between the two candidates in personality and leadership style, the question for primary voters tomorrow — who could in effect pick the Democratic nominee and likely next president of the United States — may be as simple as this: With whom would I rather share my living room for the next four years?

Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "Clinton, Obama show their strengths: Personalities reveal how they may govern" in the St. Cloud Times (pp. 4-5B), March 4, 2008.

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated March 04, 2008