How Will Obama Lead?

Temperament and presidential psychology

Posted Nov 11, 2008

     This historic election is over, and now the question becomes how will Barack Obama lead? To understand how an Obama White House might be similar to or different from that of his immediate predecessors, Bush and Clinton, it pays to compare and contrast the three men on two components of their basic temperaments: curiosity and hypomania. Clinton was both hypomanic and curious. Bush was neither. And Obama appears to be curious but not hypomanic.
     For a hundred years, academic personality psychologists have been trying to identify the basic axes on which to map the human personality. Intellectual curiosity, it turns out, is one of these fundamental dimensions, according to the widely accepted Five Factor theory, developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrea at The National Institutes of Health. According to their data, you are either born curious, or not. Hypomania, too, as I argued in The Hypomanic Edge, and more recently in my book, In Search of Bill Clinton, is also best understood as an innate temperament, imbuing one with dynamic traits such as energy, creativity, confidence, and charisma, but also with problems in self-regulation and impulse control.
     When Bill Clinton was making the case for Barack Obama with the voters, the first qualification that he noted was that Obama was both intelligent and curious. While at first blush, curiosity might seem like a strange qualification to emphasize, Clinton was not offering feint praise, as some suspected. Clinton knew just how important curiosity really is to the day-to-day work of a president. If one had to point to one factor that distinguished Clinton from Bush, and explained why Bush was a failure and Clinton a relative success, this would be it.
     Simply put, Bush just wasn't that interested in the details of governing. He didn't like to consider alternate views or findings. He accepted neo-conservative dogma on faith, and that was that. Even when his policies appeared to be failing or unpopular, Bush was had no desire to hear dissenting ideas or inconvenient facts. Bush who is neither curious nor hypomanic kept his meetings short-no point in jaw-boning these things to death-and went to bed early, losing little sleep of America's problems.
     Clinton, who is both intensely curious and hypomanic couldn't be a stronger contrast. Well-known for being a policy junkie, Clinton was insatiably omnivorous in his consumption of everything ever said or written about every aspect of policy. Clinton reads everything related to public policy, and even more remarkable, remembers it all. Journalist Joe Klein wrote in The Natural that Clinton "seemed to know everything there was to know about domestic social policy....Oh, could he talk policy! He seemed to know more about the school choice experiment in East Harlem than the governor of New York did; he knew all about the competitive bidding for sanitation contracts in Phoenix, the public housing manager in Omaha who'd come up with a great after-school program for kids in the projects, the terrific for-profit welfare to work program in New York." In my interviews with people who know Clinton, I was told again and again by experts in a half a dozen fields "He knows more about my specialty than I do." And, because Clinton was hypomanic as well as curious, there was a driven quality to his quest for endless information and ideas. He often stayed up all night reading, usually half a dozen different books at a time, devouring them with an almost physically greedy intensity.
What does a White House run by a curious hypomanic look like? Where Bush' meetings were short and structured, Clinton's were endless and open ended. Clinton wanted to hear every point of view, review every fact, and play with creative variations of every exiting idea. Cabinet officers confessed to me that they were physically passing out from fatigue and hunger during these marathon meeting, asking themselves, as Leon Panetta put it, "Where the hell all this going?" While Clinton was widely criticized for this chaotic creative style, it worked. Panetta argued that Clinton usually made very good decisions, "even if he had to go by way of Mars to get there."
     Obama, who is curious but not hypomanic, is likely to fall in between these two extreme contrasts in style. Because he is curious like Clinton, Obama is likely to also hear from a range of advisors, review findings and arguments from diverse sources, and consider creative policy approaches. However, because he is not hypomanic, the Obama White House should be less chaotic than that run by Clinton. No drama-Obama has proved to be but unusually steady, cool, and deliberative. Indeed, during the financial crisis, it was Obama's "preternatural calm" that seemed to reassure the country that he was presidential enough to lead. We have reason to be optimistic that Obama's temperament may be just right, not too hot and not too cold.
     And that should help us all sleep better at night.