Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Predicting the Nature of Obama's Presidency


Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

In May 2004, after re-reading the late James David Barber's seminal study on predicting presidential behavior, and as the 2004 election approached, I wrote a column entitled "Predicting Presidential Performance: Is George W. Bush An Active/Negative President Like Nixon, LBJ, Hoover and Wilson?" Barack Obama's victory has me looking at Barber's work again.

Barber's predictive analysis of Bush - like many others of his uncanny calls -was more than prescient; it was spooky in its accuracy. Bush showed all the traits of Professor Barber's "active/negative" president: He is aggressive in pursuing the work of the president, and thus an "active president," but he finds very little personal satisfaction in that work, making him a "negative president." Using Barber's analysis, I wrote that no one should look for a reassuring second term from Bush.

The Republican Approach to Government: Authoritarian Rule

Now, as the Bush II presidency comes to its end, the parallels with other active/negative presidencies could not be more striking. Like Woodrow Wilson, Bush has started a war but cannot find a workable peace, and like Wilson's, Bush's presidency effectively ended long before it was time to leave.

Herbert Hoover's active/negative approach made him helpless as the nation fell into its disastrous Depression, and the references comparing Bush's behavior to Hoover's, as the nation finds itself in the worst financial shape since the Depression, are both accurate and descriptive. Bush, like Hoover, has a heart of ice when it comes to the "little people" and his ideology will not let the federal government truly help the private sector outside Wall Street.

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon ended their active/negative presidencies by being run out of town when their public approval standing was so low they felt they could not govern. Bush has even lower approval ratings, but he is not going anywhere, because unlike Johnson and Nixon, who also thought they were right, yet worried about the greater good of the nation, Bush does not seem to care, so he will stay to the bitter end. After all, the perks are great.

Professor Barber's Touchstones for Presidential Analysis

Professor Barber found that all presidents can be placed in one of four groups based on how actively or passively they perform in their political roles, and whether they enjoy or dislike these activities. Accordingly, he groups them as active/positive or active/negative for those who are aggressive presidents, and passive/positive and passive/negative for those who are laid-back executives. I will highlight each category, but will address the active/positive presidents in the next section.

Active/Negative. As I mentioned in my prior column, the active/negative presidents who take bold moves - and this includes presidents like John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and now George W. Bush - have in the end proven themselves to be disasters of varying degrees.

Passive/Positive. Barber describes passive/positive presidents as "receptive, compliant, other-directed" personalities "whose life is a search for affection as a reward for being agreeable and cooperative rather than personally assertive." They have "superficially optimistic and hopeful attitudes that helps dispel doubts and lift spirits." They are able to "soften the harsh edge of politics." Barber places the following presidents in this category: James Madison, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan. These are all presidents Americans have loved when they have been in office, and they get by, but at the end of the day, they cannot boast great accomplishments arising out of their presidencies.

Passive/Negative. The category of passive/negative presidents is very odd, for one might ask why such a personality would even become involved in politics in the first place, when they don't like it, and do little when in office. Barber explains that "passive/negative types are in politics because they think they ought to be." And once in the political spotlight, they are not great leaders, for they tend to withdraw, and avoid conflict. Barber's classic example of this type of president is George Washington, who took the job because he felt he should. Washington was not an innovator; rather he sought to create stability, and he had to be persuaded to stay for a second term, when, in truth, he would have preferred to retire to Mt. Vernon. Others whom Barber places among the passive/negative type are Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

Barber says surprisingly little about Abraham Lincoln, but he appears to be the first of a number of great presidents who were active/positive types.

The Active/Positive Presidents: Barack Obama Fits This Mold

Active/Positive types not only dive into politics and government with gusto, becoming whirlwinds of activity, but they truly enjoy doing it. As Barber explains these are people with relatively high-esteem who have enjoyed success in their political careers before arriving in the White House. They are people who see productiveness as a value, and adopt styles that are flexible, adaptive, and "suiting the dance to the music."

Barber reports that Thomas Jefferson was our first active/positive president. "A child of the Enlightenment," he applied his reasoning skills to organizing the new government accordingly. He was a man of wide interests, "delightful humor," and astute political judgment, Barber notes. Other active/positive presidents Barber names are Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.

Now the good news. After observing candidate Barack Obama, and reading his two memoirs Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope, I strongly believe that he is a prototypical "active/positive" president - under the criteria of Barber's analysis. For that reason, allow me to further draw from Barber's work, to highlight the portrait of an active/positive president's key characteristics - quoting Barber's analysis as follows - for it provides a portrait of the coming Obama presidency, if Barber is correct:

A conviction of capability. The President soon reaches the conclusion that despite weaknesses he knows about, he is fully able to meet the challenges of the job.

Investment without immersion. He shows a deep interest in, and strong attention to, the substance of the issues he decides to take on. He learns quickly what he needs to know and stores in memory a great deal of information he might find useful. Yet there is also a certain detachment, a distance he puts between himself and his work. He has an existence beyond his occupation. A symptom of this objectivity is laughter, at his own blunderings and those of his enemies.

A sense of the future as possible. In his attention, the future is more important than the past. The future is not set, not inevitable either for good or ill. It is not to be mastered by some mechanical application of "principles," but by imaginative experimentation. It will grow out of trends, possibilities, accidents, opportunities--and it can be helped along.

A repertoire of habits. The active-positive President uses a variety of styles, moving flexibly among a number of modes of political action. Such a President seems to base his self-definition on ground deeper than the collection of stylistic approaches he has put together over the years. His style is a bag of tools, not a way of life.

The communication of excitement. The President moves outward from a base of relative strength and connects with other people, stimulating their interest, invigorating their own positive imaginations. From some he may elicit a 'charismatic' response; for nearly all he supplies a sense that he is at the center of fascinating events and that the center is moving."

Although not all active/positive presidents have been great presidents - Jimmy Carter had a failed presidency, though he has been our greatest ex-president - these active/positive traits seem to be the stuff of greatness. Personally, I am thrilled to have another active/positive president with Obama, for it is what the country badly needs.

While I have not done justice to Barber's work in The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, I have noted the uncanny accuracy of his pigeonholing of presidential performance. Under that analysis, Senator John McCain is a prototypical active/negative, and for certain, the country did not need another leader fitting the type of Hoover, Wilson, LBJ, Nixon, and Bush II. Rather, we needed someone with the disposition and abilities to clean up the mess of the last active/negative president.

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

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not express the opinions of FindLaw.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard