I was at the dentist getting my teeth cleaned, of all places, when I watched President Barack Obama deliver his final news conference yesterday. When I heard him say that he believes that “people are more good than bad,” I teared up right there in the dentist chair (this was no problem as it was easily attributable to the severe pain associated with a typical dental cleaning …).
For the most part, I’ve spent my adult life staying away from politics. If you’re involved in the number of things that I’m involved in, it’s really just hard to find the time! This said, I’ve had nothing but full appreciation for President Obama’s approach to leading the nation for the past eight years. I have served the New Paltz psychology department as chair for this same exact duration - and (while his job is a little more important!) I have seen lots of parallels in the kinds of situations he has run into - and I have learned quite a bit from observing how he has handled a position that is famously touted as “the hardest job in the world.”
You don’t have to be a PhD in psychology to have a perspective on the nature of being human. In fact, all people have their own theories of psychology, to some extent - and we call this “lay personology” (see Ross & Nisbett, 1991). And as is true of so many of the ways that we see things, our approaches to what it means to be human vary considerably across people.
As I see it, one of the keys to President Obama’s extraordinary success as president is found in his extremely open-minded and person-centered approach to people. Below are six quotes from President Obama’s final press conference which paint a picture of his basic take on being human.
“I believe there are more good people than bad.”
As a PhD trained in classical social psychology, I just love this statement. When it comes to having a take on human nature, we have a choice. Many people see sharp divides between “them” and “us.” Many people divide the world into the good people and the bad people.Friend or foe - that kind of thing. But you know, five years in a PhD program in social psychology will knock that kind of thinking right out of a person. One of the most fundamental lessons of social psychology (see Milgram, 1963) is the fact that bad or antisocial behavior is much more likely to be the result of situations that facilitate antisocial behavior - rather than by some internal qualities that are somehow uniquely held by “the bad people.” People don’t come in good versus bad varieties - people are good - and we need to create social structures and systems to harness the goodness in people. This reasoning sits at the core of President Obama’s take on what it means to be human.
To the Press: “You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power ...”
President Obama’s relationship with the press has generally been admirable. And this point owes largely to the fact that he is a truly open-minded and empathic individual who listens to others, gives them their due, and who generally works in a collaborative fashion. His approach to working with others is all about a team mentality, and this point has carried over into his relations with the press. President Obama has worked to empower the press, in spite of how difficult that has been at times. He understands their role - he appreciates it - and he works with them as opposed to against them.
(on LGBT rights): “I could not be prouder of the transformation that’s taken place in our society just in the last decade.”
In a recent TED talk on the nature of politics, renowned behavioral scientist Jonathan Haidt provides a powerful way to understand the distinction between the conservative versus the liberal philosophy. To the conservative mind, the primary ingroup ends at the nation’s border. Conservatives are nationalists, looking to prioritize the best interests of our nation at a cost to all else. Liberals, on the other hand, see humanity in a much broader sense - to the mind of a classic liberal, geographical borders are permeable. And there is a focus on advancing the lives of all people. In a similar vein, President Obama’s efforts to advance the inclusivity of our approach to people has shown all the hallmarks of this classically liberal approach. And perhaps the clearest example of this fact pertains to the advances in the support for the LGBT community that President Obama has supported in a steadfast manner over the past eight years. President Obama has made a point to be a president for ALL PEOPLE.
President Obama’s approach to inclusivity is also found in his vision of America. From the President’s perspective, diversity is something that should be truly embraced. This is not just lip service. He genuinely believes in the greatness that exists in people who come from any number of backgrounds and he has worked tirelessly to help advance the American dream for people who cut across the lines of gender, sexual orientation, faith, and race. He truly has been “the inclusive president” in all respects.
“I want to spend precious time with my girls. So those are my priorities this year.”
President Obama has always had an admirable personal side. From all accounts, his dedication to his family is unwavering. His core set of principles that he brings to the most important job in the world seem to translate to his family life - which seems like one built on mutual respect, empathy, and a strong belief in the capacities of all members of the family. Inclusivity and the belief that all people are capable of greatness seem to make it into his approach to family.
“I was sorely tempted to wear a tan suit today … but Michelle … tells me that’s not appropriate in January ...”
And let’s not forget that President Obama is, at the end of the day, really just another guy. A guy whose wife tells him not to wear a tan suit in January. A guy who cracks jokes on the side with that trickster Joe Biden. A guy who, like each and every one of us, is imperfect and who is doing his very best to make this world a better place.
Thank You for Your Service, President Obama
I have had the privilege of living in the United States during Barack Obama’s presidency. During this time, our nation has seen extraordinary advances in supporting human rights. During this time, the United States has garnered extraordinary respect from leaders across the world due largely to the incredibly capable and inspirational nature of our leader. During this time - which has, in many ways, been a time of war - we have been able to rest assured that our leader has been doing everything within his power to make the world a better place for us and for our children. Bless you, President Obama. And thank you for your extraordinary service to our nation and to our world.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378
Obama, B. (2017). Obama’s last transcript. New York Times.
Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (1992) The Person and the Situation, 1991. New York: McGraw Hill.