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Old 12-11-2008, 10:20 PM   #297220  /  #1
lpetrich
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Default Obama vs. Bush: Active, Passive, Positive, Negative

I had posted on this question earlier, and I think that it is time to update it for our President-elect. President Bush: Active-Negative: Dangerous? (IIDB/FRDB) and GWB: Active-Negative, the Worst Kind of President? (RnR blog).

Or at least so said John W. Dean in If Past Is Prologue, George Bush Is Becoming An Increasingly Dangerous President. He drew from the work of the late James David Barber, which he mentioned in his earlier article on this question. For more see this short description of JDB's work, and this Washington Post obituary. In the first edition of his book, Barber had predicted that then-President Nixon's Presidency would self-destruct in his second term. Which came true, though when the book came out, the cause of that destruction had yet to mushroom from a certain "third-rate burglary" of the Watergate apartment complex.

His classic book, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, features a two-way typology of Presidential leadership styles:

Presidents can be either active or passive; Lyndon Baines Johnson was super active, while Calvin Coolidge slept eleven hours per night and napped a lot during the day.

Presidents can be either positive or negative; positive ones seem to enjoy their Presidency, despite the burdens of that job, while negative ones do not.
  • Active-positive: adaptive, high self-esteem, flexible, goal-oriented: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Harry S Truman
  • Active-negative: compulsive, power-seeking: Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon
  • Passive-positive: compliant, genial and agreeable but easily wounded: Ronald Reagan, William Howard Taft, James Madison, Bill Clinton
  • Passive-negative: widthdrawn, dutiful, but withdrawing from political fights: George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Bush, Sr.
Of these, active-positive and passive-negative are the easiest to understand. If one likes the Presidency, then why let oneself be a doormat? (passive-positive) And if one dislikes it, then why bother with trying to do anything? (active-negative)

Two of our most beloved Presidents, FDR and JFK, were active-positive, which may be a reason why they were so beloved. Abraham Lincoln, curiously enough, was active-negative, and the first President of them all, George Washington, was passive-negative. He had no desire to crown himself King George I, he very reluctantly was President a second time, and in his farewell address, he warned against a big national debt (deficit spending), standing armies, and foreign entanglements. He clearly preferred a very modest international role, not having much interest in a favorite route to power and glory, imperialism.

Of Barber's types, the active-negative type is the most relevant here; he argues that GWB is an active-negative President. Such presidents are generally very aggressive in pursuit of their goals, but they get little emotional satisfaction out of doing so. And perhaps not surprisingly, their presidencies typically do not end well. For them, "life is a hard struggle to achieve and hold power", but one in which they are "hampered by the condemnations of a perfectionist conscience." They are very concerned with whether they are "winning or losing, gaining or falling behind." They evaluate themselves "with respect to virtue," and they are often very self-righteous; they find it difficult to learn from experience, and they are often very rigid and stubborn. They see themselves as being self-sacrificing rather than self-rewarding, and are "concerned with controlling [their] aggression reining in [their] anger." And they tend to be very secretive.

This stubbornness and inflexibility can seriously cost them when they make mistakes, as has happened with several of Barber's examples.
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Wilson rode his unpopular League of Nations proposal to his ruin; Hoover refused to let the federal government intervene to prevent or lessen a fiscal depression; Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam while misleading Americans (thereby making himself unelectable); and Nixon went down with his bogus defense of Watergate.
Though we have survived several such presidents, Barber has the decency not to be Panglossian about that; he says that that is "cold comfort to those individuals and families who suffered for what these Presidents did."

-

Barber takes on John DiIulio's claim that GWB is active-positive; he notes that while GWB puts on a very cheerful appearance and he likes being head of state, he does not seem to like the actual business of being the head of government.
Quote:
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.
Going from 2004 to 2006 only further supports Dean's conclusion; he notes that Presidents' only real power is the "bully pulpit" power of persuasion, but GWB acts as if he doesn't need that power, that all he has to do is give orders. As he says,
Quote:
Other Presidents - other leaders, generally - have been able to listen to critics relatively impassively, believing that there is nothing personal about a debate about how best to achieve shared goals. Some have even turned detractors into supporters - something it's virtually impossible to imagine Bush doing. But not active/negative presidents. And not likely Bush.
Dean then speculated on what possible "October Surprise" the Administration may have. Vice President Cheney turned into a "senior counselor"? A "Great Powers" coalition of Russia, China, Britain, France, etc. against Iran? A pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? Capturing Osama bin Laden? But as it turned out, there was no such "October Surprise" in either 2006 or 2008.

Dean then speculated that another major terrorist attack will cause Americans to rally around GWB simply because he's the President, but if I may risk some optimism, I suspect that that could backfire. The Administration could be widely perceived as having failed to protect America from terrorism, the way that it is widely perceived as having responded inadequately to the Katrina disaster. However, we never got to find out, since no such attack happened. And in the current economic collapse, GWB has been almost helpless and paralyzed as a leader, even letting Obama be a de facto co-president.

After I had posted on this question in IIDB/FRDB in 2006, GWB suffered a defeat in the Congressional elections that year, with the Democrats getting the majority of the House and a bare majority in the Senate. I had speculated in my RnR blog entry that the Democrats are likely to get even more House and Senate seats in the elections this year, though it is more doubtful that they can get the Presidency. And in the recent election, the Democrats did indeed get not only more House and Senate seats, but also the Presidency.

Barber had argued that active-negative presidencies typically do not end well, and that is certainly true of GWB's presidency. His wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in Pyrrhic victories and the economy has been suffering the worst collapse since the Great Depression.

-

Of the main Presidential candidates, Barack Obama has the potential to be an active-positive President like FDR or JFK, though he might end up a passive-positive one like Bill Clinton, a doormat who can never get very much done. He does not seem like a very nasty person; he wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope, calling for a kinder, gentler sort of politics, and despite what he's gone through in this campaign, he has avoided slinging political mud. Which was true even to the end of it, as far as I can tell.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain I was not so sure of, however, and I did not even bother to try to assess the others in the race. John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, ...
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Old 12-11-2008, 10:31 PM   #297230  /  #2
gamera
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Personally, I thnk Obama's gentility with opponents is an act (and I don't mean that as an insult but a compliment). I think he is fundamentally a tough intelligent guy with a progressive agenda (one I agree with), and he thinks the best strategy for achieving that agenda is playing nice.

Up to now, he's been right, at least as electoral politics go.

But I suspect that if playing nice doesn't work, he's quite capable of the machinations necessary to get things done in a less gentile fashion.
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Old 12-11-2008, 11:40 PM   #297321  /  #3
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(withholding skeptical comment but...in the immortal works of Lewis Black, "where does one buy drugs that can make one so delusional?)
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Old 12-12-2008, 07:58 AM   #297591  /  #4
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This whole model strikes me as entirely too subjective. When the very brief description of the types is presented, it seems quite clear to me that George W. belongs in the positive-active type. Introducing "brow furrowing" to somehow negate the other aspects of the description certainly isn't a very scientific, or even objective, way to go about such an analysis. In short, it's all a bunch of crap.
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Old 12-13-2008, 10:25 PM   #298826  /  #5
lpetrich
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I disagree; I think that John Dean has it right about GWB's character, and events since he wrote those columns have confirmed his assessment.

I think that JD is right that GWB thinks that all he has to do is command, that he does not really have to persuade people. He has called himself the "decider", and his staffers have pushed the "unitary executive" theory, which states that the Presidency is exempt from outside authority, like from the Congress or from the judiciary. He has even gone so far as to demand extreme powers for fighting terrorism -- powers exempt from outside review, of course. This has induced some critics to revive a Nixon-era term: "imperial presidency".

JD has written yet another column on this question: Predicting the Nature of Obama's Presidency And as he notes, the parallels with previous active-negative presidents is striking. Like LBJ and Nixon, GWB has overstayed his welcome, continuing on despite getting very low approval ratings. But Johnson had the decency not to run for another term and Nixon the decency to resign, decency which GWB seems to lack. And like Woodrow Wilson, he got the US involved in a war and failed to come up with a workable peace. And like Herbert Hoover, he finds it hard to give assistance to anyone other than his favorite businesses.

Some assessments:
  • Active-Positive: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln?, Theodore Roosevelt?, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter
  • Active-Negative: John Adams, Abraham Lincoln?, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon
  • Passive-Positive: James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton
  • Passive-Negative: George Washington, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Bush, Sr.
I've seen Jimmy Carter called active-negative, but while his presidency is widely considered a failure, he went on to become a great ex-president. I've also seen Theodore Roosevelt called active-positive on account of his antitrust laws, and I've seen some people question Eisenhower being passive-negative when he had been a great general.


And Barack Obama? John Dean agrees with my assessment that he has an active-positive style. "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." According to Barber, an active-positive president has:
  • A conviction of capability.
  • Investment without immersion.
  • A sense of the future as possible.
  • A repertoire of habits.
  • The communication of excitement.
How well does Obama fit? It's hard for me to say; if nothing else, Obama certainly talks the talk in some of these, and is certainly capable of getting many people to love him.

Finally, John Dean also suspects John McCain of being active-negative, of feeling it his painful duty to continue GWB's war. If that is a reasonable assessment, then one can feel relieved that he did not get elected.
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Old 12-14-2008, 02:02 AM   #299056  /  #6
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From Presidents to First Ladies?

Robert Watson has written a paper, "The First Ladies' Character: Applying Barber's Character Study to the Presidential Studies" in the book "White House Studies Compendium", partially available in books.google.com. In it, he has taken the analysis further, analyzing the careers of the various First Ladies, and he comes up with:
  • Active-Positive: Dolley Madison, Ellen Wilson, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford
  • Active-Negative: Abigail Adams, Helen Taft, Edith Wilson, Florence Harding, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton
  • Passive-Positive: Martha Jefferson, Elizabeth Monroe, Grace Coolidge, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush
  • Passive-Negative: Martha Washington, Bess Truman, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon
He then goes into detail, sorting the First Ladies out by how they performed the various roles of their position.
  • Public Figure and Symbol of the Presidency
    • Active-Positive: Dolley Madison, Julia Tyler, Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson
    • Active-Negative: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Helen Taft, Florence Harding, Edith Wilson, Lou Hoover, Bess Truman, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton
    • Passive-Positive: Elizabeth Monroe, Sarah Polk, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley, Ellen Wilson, Grace Coolidge
    • Passive-Negative: Louisa Adams, Anna Harrison, Abigail Fillmore, Margaret Taylor, Letitia Tyler, Jane Pierce, Eliza Johnson, Lucretia Garfield, Edith Roosevelt
  • White House Hostess and Manager
    • Active-Positive: Dolley Madison, Julia Tyler, Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Helen Taft, Grace Coolidge, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton
    • Active-Negative: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sarah Polk, Lucretia Garfield, Edith Roosevelt, Florence Harding, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan
    • Passive-Positive: Ida McKinley, Ellen Wilson, Barbara Bush
    • Passive-Negative: Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Adams, Anna Harrison, Abigail Fillmore, Margaret Taylor, Letitia Tyler, Jane Pierce, Eliza Johnson, Edith Wilson, Bess Truman
  • Social Advocate
    • Active-Positive: Lucy Hayes, Caroline Harrison, Ellen Wilson, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton
    • Active-Negative: Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, Helen Taft, Florence Harding, Nancy Reagan
    • Passive-Positive: Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Monroe, Abigail Fillmore, Sarah Polk, Julia Tyler, Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush
    • Passive-Negative: Anna Harrison, Margaret Taylor, Letitia Tyler, Jane Pierce, Eliza Johnson, Lucretia Garfield, Ida McKinley, Edith Roosevelt, Edith Wilson, Bess Truman, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon
  • Political and Policy Adviser/Actor
    • Active-Positive: Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Abigail Fillmore, Sarah Polk, Ellen Wilson, Florence Harding, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton
    • Active-Negative: Louisa Adams, Helen Taft, Edith Wilson, Bess Truman
    • Passive-Positive: Martha Washington, Anna Harrison, Margaret Taylor, Julia Tyler, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eliza Johnson, Sarah Grant, Lucy Hayes, Lucretia Garfield, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley, Edith Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush
    • Passive-Negative: Elizabeth Monroe, Letitia Tyler, Jane Pierce, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon
It would be interesting to work out such a decomposition of roles for the Presidency itself, and then see how each President has fared.


Back to the First Ladies. Though most of the earlier ones are not very well-known, the more recent ones are sometimes very well-known, even to the point of overshadowing their husbands.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Betty Ford, the overall active-positive ones, were much-admired, and they had activist careers that they continued for the rest of their active lives.

Jackie Kennedy seems to have been a rather reluctant celebrity; she was a big celebrity back in the 1960's and 1970's. She later found a more satisfying calling as a book editor, however.

Nancy Reagan was not exactly very likable, it must be said.

Hillary Clinton liked policymaking, but she did not like being a symbol of the presidency -- maybe she should have stayed a Senator and continued with policymaking. But she may get to continue doing that when she becomes Secretary of State.
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