Can Obama Fake Extraversion?

Bush and Clinton had it; Obama needs it.

Posted Oct 09, 2012

Dan McAdams sized up George W. Bush a few years back, looking at the ex-President's personality from three different angles--traits (or, dispositional signature), characteristic adaptations (habitually employed psychological strategies for getting what one wants), and stories (the way we narrate life events). McAdams's research focus is scripts, especially what he calls redemption sequences, successful second acts in a life. Despite that, he's at his best in the Bush book when he unpacks Bush's traits, and how his traits led to behaviors. McAdams reads Bush as a closed-minded extravert (yes, that is how you spell extraversion). What's that mean? First, he is likely low in what's called openness or "inquiring intellect." High "O" people present as typical artist-types--creative, fantasy-prone, in thrall to beauty in all forms, and emotionally labile. They thrill to complexity, ambiguity, big ideas, in short the kind of stuff people brood about in coffee shops over several espressos while pausing now and then to read Kierkegaard. As Bush once proudly put it, "I don't do nuance." That single statement is pretty diagnostic, so to speak. If he was in fact a "decider," as he enjoyed calling himself, the decisions came quickly, not after prolonged, ponderous deliberation. Bush, McAdams argues convincingly, was low "O."

On the other hand, his extraversion was Texas-sized. Energetic, charismatic, active, dominant, he exuded largely positive feeling, an interpersonal finesse that belied his intermittent verbal awkwardness. With people, he scored, his personality winning. People liked being around him. Voters wanted to have a beer with him.

When it came to Iraq, low "O" and high "E" set the tone. Bush acted swiftly. He didn't sit around thinking about it, judiciously weighing infinite options. Some wished he had "done more nuance." Trouble is, that was never his style. Nuance was sissified. He kicked it aside with his too-clean boots, the kind favored by Yale cowboys. He bombed, and questioned intelligence errors later.

I was reminded of McAdams's book while watching Obama's tepid debate performance in early October. My first question was, "What the f*#@ck was that?" Then I started pondering the trait question.

In some ways Obama is Bush's opposite. He does too much nuance. In a jam, his instinct is to think harder, when he ought to be feeling something or asking his belly (as they say in Zen). You can almost watch the wheels spin as he mentally inspects then discards one idea after another, or tracks the argument three moves beyond where he's at presently, covering all these cogitations with space fillers like "uh" or "look, um" (anyone else noticed the ubiquitousness of that one, as in "Look, um, the middle class is. . . "). Obama is clearly high "O," curious, abstract, deliberative, reflective. The trope endlessly used to describe him is "professorial" (which always galls me, since I know no professor as mentally tongue-tied as Obama is). But here, especially in a debate context that calls for spontaneity, gut, quick-thinking, high "O" can be a hindrance. It looks like ponderousness, indecision, excessive cerebration, and worst of all, lack of feeling. In his high "O" head Obama is ethereally Apollonian when what others wish they saw was someone a lot more Dionysian. He's a little like the kid who, when James Brown comes on at a frat party, pretends to get into the music rather than orgiastically dancing his ass off (Brown sings "Get up off of your feet!" Obama complies, reluctantly).

This leads me to a final point, admittedly more iffy. The core of extraversion is positive feeling--being, more days than not, happy and upbeat--orbited by gregariousness, dominance, and a dose, possibly, of impulsivity. I'm not certain, but I don't see Obama as a true extravert. In the debate, three or four times he flashed a strikingly toothy smile, but it seemed calculated, weary. He certainly was not enjoying himself. He had little buoyancy. In the aftermath critics have begun to wonder, Does he want to be President? It's a reasonable question. I've always had my doubts about that. Clinton wanted to be President, Bush did too, Romney does like a high schooler wanting the iPhone 5. Obama? Not convincingly. He's going to need to fake it better. He's going to need to do something he's temperamentally unsuited for--behave like an extravert. Obama needs a little Bush.