Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
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Obama’s Conciliatory Tendency Could be Cause for Concern
October 14, 2008
With pressing economic concerns all but eclipsing national security and energy issues, which have traditionally favored Republican candidates, Democratic nominee Barack Obama has pulled ahead of John McCain in the race for president.
That gives new urgency to the question of how Obama would lead. In the waning days of a seemingly interminable campaign, there’s little we don’t yet know about Obama’s record or policy proposals.
However, we cannot anticipate a candidate’s presidential performance purely on the basis of his record or ideas; as we learned on 9/11, the tenor of a presidency can be hijacked by rapidly arising circumstances, reducing the best of intentions to a smoking pile of rubble.
For that reason, there’s considerable value in examining a candidate’s enduring personal traits – those drivers of thought, behavior, temperament, and relating to others that remain relatively constant over time and direct a person’s actions across a broad range of situations.
To achieve an in-depth psychological understanding of presidential candidate Barack Obama, I consulted three personality profiles of the Illinois senator, developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in the fall of 2007 and the spring and summer of 2008.
Collectively, the profiles revealed that Obama is ambitious and confident; modestly dominant and self-asserting; accommodating, uncommonly cooperative and agreeable; somewhat outgoing and congenial; and relatively conscientious.
Obama’s combination of confidence, assertiveness, and congeniality fits the profile of a charismatic leader. Specifically, Obama’s profile indicates that he has an extraordinary mix of ambitious, dominant, and outgoing traits foundational to the political skills required to advance a personal vision, connect with people, and inspire followers.
First, Obama’s level of ambition is at a moderate level that generally conveys self-confidence, social composure, poise, level-headedness, stability, and charm rather than narcissistic self-absorption or arrogance.
Similarly, Obama’s modest degree of dominance finds expression in deliberative, forceful assertiveness rather than the hot-headed combativeness found in more extreme variants of this particular tendency.
Moreover, Obama’s ambitious and dominant tendencies are tempered, and somewhat masked, by genuine congeniality and an accommodating nature. Thus, beyond being strong-willed and determined, Obama is affable and gracious – personality traits that help him connect with voters on a very personal level.
The outgoing pattern in Obama’s personality profile, a quality he shares with presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and with his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain, may be key to his meteoric rise to prominence and political success thus far in the 2008 election cycle.
Obama’s personality profile contains two attributes rarely seen in presidential candidates: agreeableness and conscientiousness.
The last presidential candidate to rank high on agreeableness was Bill Bradley, who unsuccessfully challenged Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000.
Agreeable personalities are accommodating and cooperative and are driven to reconcile differences. Cordiality and compromise characterize their interpersonal relationships. They are humble (as politicians go) and gracious – even with respect to adversaries and people they dislike.
Beyond his accommodating nature, the personality variable that most distinguishes Obama from recent presidents is his conscientiousness. The last U.S. president that could be characterized as conscientious was the first President Bush. In contrast, President George W. Bush is low on conscientiousness, as is Republican nominee, McCain.
Conscientious personalities are prudent. They have a dignified bearing, are attentive to detail, and are deliberative leaders attuned to the long-term implications of their policy initiatives.
Accommodating qualities could be cause for concern
Texas psychologists Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas J. Faschingbauer, in a study conducted with Deniz S. Ones of the University of Minnesota, have found that agreeableness, including cooperativeness and a concern for others, may be a hindrance to presidential success.
In their words, highly agreeable leaders “really don’t belong in the pack of wolves, which is what politics can be.”
In that regard, it’s noteworthy that agreeableness is not Obama’s central trait and that his accommodating tendency is balanced by substantial dominance.Nonetheless, a critical question before voters in the countdown to Election Day is whether Obama is tough enough, shrewd enough, and enough of a fighter to lead America in a dangerous world.
Note. A slightly edited version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "Who is Barack Obama?" in the St. Cloud Times (p. 7B), October 15, 2008.
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Last updated October 24, 2008