Making Sense of People

Decoding the mysteries of personality

Who Is Barack Obama?

Assessing his personality in the New York Times

Many people who are unhappy with the recent legislation to raise the national debt ceiling lay the blame on the intransigence of the Tea Party. But disappointed supporters of Barack Obama also find fault with him. They had hoped that their president would use the considerable powers of his office to force a more effective grand bargain. The fact that he didn't has led them to not only criticize his negotiating tactics. It has also led them to rethink their view of Obama's personality. What happened to Mr. "Yes We Can"?

Much of this analysis has come from economists and political analysts. In fact some of them began calling attention to Obama's unusual readiness to compromise as soon as he moved into the oval office. As his term progressed it became clear that he was often reluctant to stake out strongly partisan positions. He seemed more comfortable in the middle ground.

Behavioral scientists have also begun to publically comment about Obama's personality, especially in the wake of the battle over the debt ceiling. Two examples were published in the past week in the opinion pages of the New York Times. One focuses on Obama's basic dispositional traits, the part of personality also called temperament. The other focuses on the part of personality called identity, the overarching sense of who the person is and where he or she is headed. Both temperament and identity need to be considered in assessing Obama and in making predictions about his future behavior.

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Obama's temperament, his combination of dispositional traits, is emphasized in psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi's essay "Maybe Washington Needs More Craziness." As Ghaemi puts it in his opening sentence " If President Obama stumbled in his handling of the debt crisis, in my view, it was because he is too normal: too rational, willing to compromise, a rule follower, conventionally wise." And he then goes on to contrast Obama with Franklin D. Roosevelt whose greater success he attributes, in part, to Roosevelt's "hyperthymic temperament... such people have very high energy levels, and are extroverted, talkative, sociable, humorous, charismatic, productive, libidinous, and workaholic." To Ghaemi the more moderate temperament of "no-drama-Obama" keeps him from confronting his adversaries in the manner of FDR.

Drew Westen, a psychologist with interests in both personality and politics, emphasizes Obama's sense of identity. In "What Happened to Obama's Passion?" he raises the possibility that Obama hasn't figured himself out yet: "Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in ‘Dreams From My Father' appended a chapter at the end that wasn't there---the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in." Later Westen suggests that Obama is conflicted about his identity and "ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue." But in the end he concludes that Obama is really most comfortable "consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation." This, then, appears to be an essential element of what Obama stands for.

Ghaemi's and Westen's assessments are particularly informative when taken together. Obama is clearly less exuberant than FDR, less insistent on having his way, temperamentally incapable of emulating his iconic predecessor. And, unlike FDR, he sees himself as a thoughtful uniter rather than a dramatic and polarizing leader. This is not to say that Obama is inherently less effective. After all, his moderate temperament and vision of inclusiveness allowed him to accomplish the unimaginable---a black man in the White House.

The great value of these discussions of Obama's personality is that they help us to consciously clarify and assess our intuitive and emotional reactions to him. Once we get a clearer picture of what he is like, we can form a more sophisticated opinion about his conduct in the latest crisis. This may intensify or mitigate our approval or disapproval, depending on who we are. In either case, though, we will understand him better and know what to expect as he faces new challenges.

References.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/maybe-washington-needs-...

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/opinion/sunday/what-happened-to...

Samuel Barondes, M.D., is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist and the author of Making Sense of People.

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