How To Choose a President

What Americans need to look for in a presidential candidate, making the right choice, and Bush's presidency.

By J. Barber, published on May 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Politics needs psychology right now. The choice of the next President and Congress can destroy or advance human civilization, given the power of this government at home and abroad. To choose leaders, American citizens need direct and confirmed knowledge of the psychology of real political judgments.

It is ironic that the public's current political despair could actually wake up their rational attention. But that is a tough challenge to the candidates and journalists. Evidence is clear that public opinion these days is a downer; a majority of citizens rate Washington, D.C., as a rotten town--a government failing to govern right. That negative evaluation and resulting fear is not a fantasy. In fact, we face real probabilities of heavy horrors: war, depression, disease. crime, ignorance, and anarchy. The greatest psychological danger this year is apathy, washed into our brains by propaganda selling placidity--gentling the citizens into looking up at the stars rather than down at the snakes. Politics is full of trouble? Okay, some say, to hell with it; just let some quiet master sweep worry into his closet so we can forget about it.

But fear can generate action. This year, angered citizens may wake up and pay attention to the campaign for President--or even for Congress. Given democracy as consent of the governed, citizens should dutifully anticipate next November 3rd as a time for their country's top choice, and thus feel the responsibility to develop their decisions rationally. A good place to start is with the news: read about the candidates, watch them, listen to talk about current politics while driving to work. Try hard.

News about Presidential candidates is being reported by smart and ambitious journalists, many of whom recognize the challenge to make reality interesting. Unlike professors, journalists have to lure the attention of citizens voluntarily, rather than assigning students to study for a test. Journalists can do that luring wrong.

Yet news about the candidates can also be complex and hard to understand. The candidates themselves tend to talk bureaucratically. Reporters often search for fresh varieties. Too often that hope for surprise generates obscure warps and sparks the reader can't catch. For example, in political debates on the news (which are not real debates), candidates address one another and the highly informed questioner with a language they already understand, but which the citizen/watchers do not. No wonder then that candidates have to shift from news complexity to advertising simplicity, since ads are designed to register in the minds of average lookers. And no wonder that journalists themselves pick up news from the ads. Given the mind of the citizen, the science of the ad-maker, and the speed of the news worker, a heavy temptation reaches forth: simplification.

Confused voters may naturally lapse over into the morals they do understand. What does "deficit" mean? The citizen probably does not know. What does "adultery" mean? The citizen does know. Therefore morals can replace politics, with voters leaning onto the simpler question of virtue rather than the harder question of policy. The malady is failure to concentrate on how the candidate's morals-or lack there-of-relate to the candidate's potential governing, not potential sanctity.

There really are moral problems relevant to ruling. Back in the early 1970s, for instance, a senator spoke straight to Richard Nixon:

All of us, Mr. President, whether we're in politics or not, have weaknesses. For some, it's drinking. For others, it's gambling. For still others, it's women. None of these weaknesses applies to you. Your weakness is credibility.

True--and relevant. Nixon's credibility was a political disaster. But should Winston Churchill have been defeated because he drank brandy? Should Nixon have defeated Kennedy because Kennedy warped into afternoon athletic adultery? Would the best reason for rejecting Harding have been that he liked gambling? None of the above. But as former Vice President Walter Mondale points out these days:

Character is a legitimate political issue, especially in a President. We have had Presidents with personal problems that seriously diminished their public judgment and power to govern effectively. We should learn about these problems before they are elected, not afterward. But the campaign is actually neglecting the qualities of character that relate most directly to the capacity to govern.

Presidential character does not mean simple morals. The focus should be on major morals--morals for political power affecting millions of humans. The challenge is to find out the personal qualities which will shape the White House operation--a particular, distinctive job, the results of which are significant. Therefore the lapse over into simple, ordinary, familiar morals is a psychological mistake for the citizen, who naturally hungers for political simplicity.

Hyper-simplicity of another sort trashes rational voting: theatrical judgments. Nowadays, that shines out on television more stunningly than ever before. Quite naturally, citizens have for a long time thought they could judge best by what they saw. What one reads seems indirect and incomplete. What one hears is hearsay--potentially rumorous gossip. What one sees comes on as undeniable truth. There it is. And it is no accident that in business, candidates for jobs are interviewed in person, not just on the telephone. It is just as understandable why reporters bus-off to travel with a candidate, so they can not only hear him but see him. Candidates are now looked at long and hard, and judged as to how they seem to act on the public stage. No wonder then that a George Bush is coached to stand tall and straight out in front of the flag of America.

To suppose that a candidate is going to be the President he looks like is absurd. History shows how false that is, right down to the present. Warren G. Harding, after he died, was regularly rated the worst President ever, until Nixon became known. But he had been recruited decades in advance by a politician who looked at him and said, "Gee, what a good-looking President he'd make!" Harding looked like George Washington and came across speaking even better. William Allen White saw him as having an "actor's sharply chiseled face, with his graying hair and massive black eyebrows, with his matinee-idol manner, tiptoeing eagerly into a national limelight...."

Harding became a good-looking, bad-doing President. What he seemed to be was not what he was.

More recently, Ronald Reagan came on as what he was not: a competent, well-informed, sincere, and devoted leader. His visual and oral theatricality caught the public attention and shunted aside the truth about his political behavior. Hardly anyone focused in on his lies. When republican candidate Reagan was asked by the Washington Post, "What are you proudest of in your public career?", he answered that he had achieved "reform of welfare" in California. "which turned out to be the most comprehensive and successful reform of welfare that's ever been attempted in this country." He gave details and numbers.

Then, in a short time, California's republican state legislators completely refuted his statement--not with minor corrections, but with facts that the number of welfare recipients had not gone down 364,630, as Reagan said, but had nearly doubled upward in numbers during his governorship, and that his claim that he had saved "almost $2 billion" in welfare expense for taxpayers was false. The truth was that welfare costs had tripled, far beyond what they had been.

The simplicity of political theatrical appearance is a distortion we should not rely on in 1992 or anytime beyond.

Time is short for voters. Perhaps the least time they need to spend in assessing which potential President to vote for is to simply take note of who is ahead and automatically decide to vote for that one--whoever it is.

Polling is done much more often now than in the past. The mode of polling is often false: counting those who go for or against a stated paragraph and then falsely reporting that the respondent "said" some part of it. In campaign polling the respondent typically does not even have to name the one he or she prefers, simply choose among the contenders. Typically, "none of the above" is not a choice offered.

But despite all the uncertainties, the result of a poll is a statistic. That makes the fact seem definite, precise, reliable. Watching and listening to a debate, the citizen grows uncertain; but then, a bit later, out comes a poll saying which candidate "won." That can seem to be a definite bottom line. The only problem is that the statistic says nothing whatever about the qualifications of any potential President. Assigning decision to others via polls is a mode for the citizen to bypass responsibility and settle in on the perception of preference by others.

Those are three typical perversions of the voter's struggle to reason out which candidate ought to be President. The three simplifications are absurd. If you were considering marriage or hiring or major investment for some actual human being, how likely would it be that you would rely totally upon the person's reported morals or impressions or statistical comparisons? Instead, you would of course check out the candidate's real character, based on what he or she had already been and done. That is normal practice--but not in Presidential politics!

Studying Presidential characters in the 20th century, I came to an obvious method of choice: check out what the life experience of candidates can tell you about their probable character as President. The basic personality study came down to two essential variables: energy and emotion. Fundamental human adaptations lean toward activity or passivity in behavior, and positive or negative sentiment. The combinations of these relatively observable variables revealed essential operative attitudes.

Passive-negative Presidents such as Coolidge and Eisenhower, for example, service the White House like some king in a castle in the sky--raising themselves way up above mundane politics, which they delegate to others because they themselves dislike the operative earthly doings. They see politics as a momentarily painful duty to be endured, due only to high ethical responsibilities.

Presidents such as Nixon and Johnson come on as active-negatives: hard-driven, hard-working, sad-minded, energetic Presidents who use their political life to drive forward their own personal, deep compulsions, actions defined inside their own obsessions rather than outside in the world of the community. That fixation can throw the power of the Presidency away from concern for the human community and guide it instead into the person's own essential demand, a goal to be pursued at whatever cost it charges the country.

Passive-positive Presidents such as Taft and Harding fall in love with the affection which politics gives them--especially as Presidents. Their personalities lived inside their own personas, wanting devotion to flow into them rather than out to the nation. Such Presidents are much manipulated by close-in friends.

The active-positive Presidents are energetic lovers of politics-happy, dynamic, political doers such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Jack Kennedy. Their personalities come on with enthusiasm for politics, a line of work they sought and liked much when they got it. Their strength is a capacity to reach far beyond themselves politically and make things happen.

These four political personalities turned out to be the most usual and obvious baseline categories to help us know which campaign characters would likely aim in which psychological direction. To label candidates with one of those mainline categories, as his own mainline political personality, will be far more useful to judge how to vote than the hyper-simplified alternatives.

But now, as then, character is only part of the personality qualities we need to know about campaigners. The basic working skills of the Presidency also need to be evaluated the candidate's capacity to do homework, negotiate actions, perform effective rhetoric. Healthy or obsessive characters do not define such skills. The skills are basic independent operative qualities-so they, too, are much needed to be known by a voter. Then there is the substantive belief the person owns, the world view shaped up as a basic political purpose, a philosophy related to this actual world to be acted upon. The world view is also logically independent of the character and skills. You can get a happy Hitler, a talented Stalin, whose psychological strengths can be used to destroy the human rights of their national comrades.

To get to know the candidates as potential Presidents, voters need the stories of the candidates' lives. Fortunately, biography is one of the most interesting and appealing stories ordinary citizens find intriguing--and worth learning. Journalists, given the time and facilities to discover and then depict the basic life story of a political contestant, can make the significant reality interesting to readers who are constantly on the verge of turning the page from politics to sports or comedies. Look at the fascinating personal biographies produced about Presidents after they have been President. That shows how the voters could have been attracted and engaged before they decided who would have their top political power.

The need to know the candidates' life stories before the day to vote clarifies the fact that election is prediction. The vote works when the President turns out to be what the voters concluded--in advance of the choice--as the main probabilities of his actions as President. Perhaps the easiest estimate in advance is the rough categorization of character as defined above. Then comes the predictions of skills and beliefs, as well as the more extensive details of character the biographies expose. The consequent validity or error of attempted predictions test the categories previously concentrated on.

Based on studies of 20th-century Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, I then took on the challenge of predictions, published in advance, for Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Not every prediction was perfect, but at least the baseline character categories and certain essential biographical prophecies worked out.

Nixon, an obvious active-negative type, was wrongly predicted by others for his second-term Presidency as a pragmatic, hyper-flexible, "TrickyDick" person. Instead, my prediction saw "the primary danger of the Nixon Presidency" as risking that "the frustrations and erosions of the self he experiences will accumulate, and that the process of rigidification, triggered by a serious threat to his power and his moral confidence, will show him how to rescue, as he sees it, his Presidential heroism." I saw him as in danger of "rigid adherence to a failing line of policy." That predicted danger turned out to be the crux of the Nixon tragedy.

Ford, who many worried about as a soft, potentially disastrous republican President, was not so predicted in my Presidential character analysis. Instead, I anticipated that "Ford is going to be pragmatic, and he is unlikely to adopt terribly rigid stances." And "he will be ready to admit it when he makes a mistake." That active-positive person turned out to be an active-positive President.

Carter, my friend, had his White House happiness overestimated by my prediction, though he did turn out to be, on balance, an active-positive as predicted. His character was fine; his problem was different: a lack of the skill a President needed to negotiate and organize action results. As predicted, well in advance of his election, "His stylistic weak point is negotiation."

So, "particularly because he would feel contagiously uncomfortable in old Sam Rayburn's 'Board of Education' gathering, and because he will be strongly tempted to go public when his opponents are verging on success, Carter will have a tough time selling legislators on the idea that it is incumbent on them to follow the maxim: `To get along, go along."'

Carter achieved some progress--as in human rights--but his trouble in negotiating with Congress, dominated by his own party, confirmed his anticipated style trouble.

Reagan's style was easily predicted as "centered on speechmaking." Thus "his would be a rhetorical Presidency." But few saw him in advance as a passive-positive type. My predictive estimate based on his life story was that he was "likely to try to please people."

"His political life centers on collecting affection from his environment. He wants to be at the center of a friendly crew of colleagues who are appreciative of him and like him. The man, after all, is an actor who wants to please his family and his friends. He always was reputed to be a nice, friendly, cheerful, optimistic sort of guy."

The bushel of books about Reagan as President, now stacked up across the land, confirm that passive-positive character which, among other things, helped to create the nation's incredibly huge deficit.

Bush's Presidency has turned out to be one of those most accurately predicted. His character? Active-positive. His skills as President? Basically effective. His world view? Incredibly bizarre and dangerous. Before he became President, I saw him as: "enlivened and inspired by a mission into a new, different, distant, unknown land....He is not stuck with consistency....Mr. Bush's hunger for mission could carry us all over the brink of disaster....The ultimate danger is war. That was Mr. Bush's first big mission....Economic realities, even beyond the deficit, pose a most difficult obstacle to any major political mission. One of Mr. Nixon's in-house conspirers, H. R. Haldeman, noted that Mr. Bush would 'do anything for the cause.' Turning to a military cause, even beyond the dimension of the Grenada invasion that Mr. Bush helped to orchestrate, is always going to be a temptation for this President.

The Bush potential is there, as it turned out to be for Harry S. Truman, who fostered the Marshall Plan. Or as it turned out for Lyndon Johnson, who fostered the Vietnam disaster. We cannot assume he will just sit still and shut up. If he does believe in what he says he does--including reality--the better turn could happen."

Bush shows his hunger for surprise. His apparent devotion, as a potential President, to the United States as "a kinder, gentler nation" was smashed aside by his Presidential action for the Persian Gulf War. His preelection economic promises did not happen. Healthy as his character is, Bush's world view is overwhelmingly dominated by his hunger for surprise.

That is not how democracy is meant to work, with law and policy determined by a Congress representing the people's preferences. But Bush has succeeded in taking on huge monarchical power in distributing hundreds of thousands of soldiers on his own personal judgment. Given his radical deterioration in popularity, far down from the width of his support at wartime, Bush is no doubt tempted to start war again to force votes up for victory.

So go Presidential predictions based on pre-President biographical studies. At least as late as early winter 1992, far too little public perception of the biographies of Presidential candidates actually happened. Instead, minor, isolated blips came out, as if certain one-time actions by a candidate would give just the clues needed to guess at his Presidency. Those who drive off to work and listen to the radio are getting more and more confused.

In the end, voters who have perceived the characters they need to know should step forward to seek out the real probabilities of what promises the candidates will actually try to keep. The promises during a campaign should not be forgotten, not trashed off in the political vacation between the day of election and the day of inauguration. Voters should indeed demand that each candidate puts forth a platform--and that he shares it with significant allies. That is what a political party used to do.

Now, thanks to the extreme fragmentation dominating our time of life, destroying parties, Congress, universities, communities, and the like, the United States needs to reach out to a candidate who will actually do--as best he can--what he says he will do with the nation. And to make these hopes happen, when a candidate swears from his heart just what he wants to make happen in life by pressing forth a policy plan of his own, the journalist should put forth a tough and highly relevant question these days to the candidate, "You and who else?"

Meanwhile, political psychologists who care for humans have a chance to make knowledge happen. Democracy needs that--now.

PHOTO (COLOR): A kinder, gentler apathy: We face real probabilities of heavy horrors: war, depression, disease, crime, ignorance, and anarchy. The greatest psychological danger this year is apathy, washed into our brains by propaganda selling placidity-gentling the citizens into looking up at the stars rather than down at the snakes.

PHOTO (COLOR): Making the right choice: There really are moral problems relevant to ruling. Character is a legitimate political issue, especially in a President. Yet Presidential character does not mean simple morals The focus should be on major morals--morals for political power affecting millions of humans. The challenge is to f nd out the personal qualities which will shape the White House operation--a particular, distinctive job, the results of which are significant.

PHOTO (COLOR): Bill Clinton and another man