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Predicting Presidential Performance:
Is George W. Bush An Active/Negative President Like Nixon, LBJ, Hoover and Wilson?


Friday, May. 21, 2004

Many political scientists believe it is possible to predict presidential performance. While no one can predict future events, the future performance of those who occupy the Oval Office can be ascertained, at least in a general fashion.

Political scientist James David Barber first showed the analytical and predictive potentials of psychology in studying presidents with his classic, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. This work, originally published in 1972, has been republished and updated on four occasions.

Barber first wrote -- long before Richard Nixon's troubles had fully unfolded but based on his scrutiny of Nixon's personality and character traits -- that Nixon would self-destruct in his second term. Since then, Barber has tested and retested his analytical tools, applying them to all the modern presidents up to and including George Herbert Walker Bush.

In retirement, Professor Barber did not apply his techniques to either Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. But shortly after 9/11, curiosity prompted me, to see how the incumbent president fared under Barber's predictive analysis. The results were anything but comforting.

Professor Barber's Analytical Framework

Before I offer the results of my analysis, a bit of background is essential.

While no system is infallible, and typologies have their weaknesses, Barber's prophetic results have proven extraordinary, for he has been uncannily prescient with his method. He takes five common elements -- character, worldview, style, power situations, and climate of expectations -- and using these elements he has assembled clusters of presidents since Theodore Roosevelt within which he finds a number of repeating baseline characteristics.

Social scientists often employ obtuse terms that appear less than user friendly, and Professor Barber is no exception. Yet when one actually becomes familiar with the jargon, it proves quiet handy. So it is with Barber's grouping of past presidents.

It is not possible to do justice to Barber's work in summary form, but those who are interested can examine his work for themselves. For my purposes, an overview suffices: At least a few key concepts -- and some of Barber's jargon -- are necessary to broadly understand his approach.

Barber has catalogued presidents based on the similarity of their personalities and character traits. His first baseline is to describe them as either "active" or "passive" regarding their work. This he determines by looking at how much energy they invest in the work of the presidency. For example, Lyndon Johnson was a human dynamo; Calvin Coolidge slept eleven hours every night and took naps during the day.

The second baseline for Barber is how presidents react toward their work: "positively" or "negatively." Generally speaking, he seeks to determine if their political experiences are satisfying. To quote Barber, "The idea is this: is he someone who, on the surfaces we can see, gives forth the feeling that he has fun in political life?"

Examples of president who had fun notwithstanding the burdens of power are Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan -- placing them on the positive side of Barber's typology. No doubt Barber would have found Bill Clinton there as well

-- except perhaps toward the difficult end of his second term.

Barber's four categories are active/positive (Example: FDR), active/negative (Example: Nixon), passive/positive (Example: Reagan) and passive/negative (Example: Jefferson).

It is the active/negative group that is the most troubling.

The Troubles of Active/Negative Presidents

Active/negative types, broadly speaking, are aggressive in pursuing their political and policy aims, yet they get little true emotional reward from undertaking these endeavors.

In addition to Richard Nixon, Barber says Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson were active/negatives -- all presidencies that did not end well.

In his book and his other writings, Barber has noted that for active/negative types that "[l]ife is a hard struggle to achieve and hold power" -- one in which they are "hampered by the condemnations of a perfectionist conscience."

"[A]ctive/negatives pour energy into the political system, but it is energy distorted from within," Barber notes. He found that these presidents are "much taken up with self-concern," and they always want to know if they are "winning or losing, gaining or falling behind."

Active/negative evaluate themselves "with respect to virtue." They view their actions (if not the world) as being good or bad. Their "perfectionistic conscience" provides no room for growth through experience, for they expect themselves to be good at all they undertake. Their ethics result in "denial of self-gratification," for these men see themselves as self-sacrificing rather than self-rewarding. They are "concerned with controlling [their] aggression … reining in [their] anger."

These presidents are capable of generating "tremendous energies for political domination." They are also uniquely stubborn men, who become more rigid and inflexible as they proceed, for they become caught up in their own self-righteousness. And as Barber says, they mask their decisions not to budge, their rigidity, in whatever rhetoric is necessary, so that they can ride the tiger to the end. They also are our most secretive presidents.

Failure by these presidents is predictable because their flawed perceptions are often risky, they are gamblers, and their rigidity can easily plunge the nation into a tragedy. This occurred with Wilson -- whose presidency was marred by a failed peace accord, a disintegrating economy, and refusal to admit the impact of a debilitating stroke. It occurred with Hoover -- who ineffectively presided over the nation's most devastating economic depression. And it also occurred with Lyndon Johnson -- his Vietnam debacle and withdrawal from reelection. Finally, and most obviously, it occurred with Nixon -- forced to resign after Watergate .

With such presidents there is always "the potential for grievous harm," Barber warns, observing that while the nation has survived several such presidents, this is "cold comfort to those individuals and families who suffered for what these Presidents did."

Barber admonishes that when we find ourselves with an active/negative president, we have a situation that cannot be ignored -- for all such presidents are potentially dangerous.

Is George W. Bush An Active/Negative President?

There is little doubt in my mind that George W. Bush is an active/negative president. Based on the available information, he strikes me as a perfect fit. But because one of Bush's aides, a political scientist who has observed Bush at close range, sees him as otherwise, it caused me to take an even closer look.

Former Bush White House aide John J. DiIulio, Jr., a respected academic, has said he thinks that Bush is an "active/positive," because "he loves the job and is very energetic." Although DiIulio is not a presidential scholar (by his own admission), his comment caused me to examine his observation -- and my own.

DiIulio appears to be using shorthand because loving the job, per se, is not one of the criteria upon which Barber relies. And DiIulio appears to base his conclusion on Bush's public face -- and on an event DiIulio attended with Bush -- rather than on Bush's typical day to day behavior.

Barber's active/positive criteria requires a "relatively high self-esteem [with] … an emphasis on rational mastery," which is not Bush. Bush no doubt loves being head of state, enjoying the pomp of his high office, as well as the politics of the presidency. Yet there is no evidence he even likes being head of the government (for it involves far more intellectual rigor than Bush enjoys). In fact, Bush is like Nixon in that he gets out of the White House every chance he has to do so.

There is an abundance of evidence (from simply watching television coverage of the seldom smiling, often annoyed, forehead-wrinkled Bush) that demonstrates that Bush reaps a "relative[ly] low emotional reward" from the job -- to quote one of Barber's active/negative criteria.

Indeed, Bush clearly fits many of the traits that Barber relies upon to define his active/negative presidents. For example, Bush has a "compulsive quality, as if … trying to make up for something or escape from anxiety in hard work." Consider how he has immersed himself in continuous campaigning throughout his first term, while Cheney minds the store.

Continuing with Barber's criteria, Bush is clearly "ambitious, striving upward and seeking power." Indeed, few presidents have been so anxious to risk their political capital to enhance their power as Bush did in the 2000 Congressional races.

In addition, Barber notes that the active/negative president "has a persistent problem in managing his aggressive feelings." Bush seems to deal with his through strenuous exercise -- running and weight training -- which, for him, have (laudably) replaced alcohol as a way to "blow off steam."

Overwhelming Evidence Shows Bush Is An Active/Negative

In sum, I don't believe Professor DiIulio's judgment that Bush is an active/positive president is borne out by the facts. In my judgment, we do, in fact, have another active/negative president -- with all the attendant problems that appears to entail, based on Barber's analysis.

And if I am right, that bodes ill. George W. Bush has taken huge risks during his first term -- with his unprecedented tax cuts, his disregard for humongous budget deficits, and a preemptive and largely unilateral war in Iraq. At the same time, he stubbornly refuses to admit to so much as a single mistake. Under Barber's model, though, we have seen nothing yet. If this active/negative president gets a second term, Barber's model predicts these traits -- love of risk and dislike of admitting error -- will only become more aggravated.

Not since Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon has the nation been exposed to an active/negative presidency. It is not something to look forward to without the greatest vigilance.

As information about John Kerry unfolds in the coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to examine him by Professor Barber's predictive tools. Stay tuned.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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