Predicting Presidential Performance: Why Mitt Romney Would Be an Active/Negative President Like Bush II, Nixon, LBJ, Hoover, and Wilson

Updated:
Posted in: Politics

During presidential election cycles, I inevitably find myself measuring candidates with tools developed by the late political scientist James David Barber in his seminal work The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance In The White House.  With the 2012 election looming, it is time to do so again.

It’s clear to me, if not to most everyone, that the Republicans are going to nominate former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as their 2012 standard-bearer. Neither Newt Gingrich, nor Ron Paul, nor Rick Santorum can win the GOP nomination. And if by some miracle, one of them did, he could never defeat Obama. (I say this even though I’m well aware that, at present, approximately 47 percent of the electorate is against reelecting Obama, as noted by PollingReport.com.)

Even if Romney is the candidate, moreover, President Obama’s reelection is highly likely—though, given the delicate state of the economy, it is far from a sure thing.  So I have been thinking lately about where Governor Romney falls under Professor Barber’s analytical system, which I will grossly simplify in order to explain its basics. Barber’s work does not predict who will win an election; rather, it addresses with surprising accuracy how a person will perform as president. And this information should, in turn, help voters make their decision.  For surely, we all want a president whose performance not just on the campaign trail, but also—and much more importantly—in office will be excellent.

Barber’s Cataloguing and Predictive Methodology

Professor Barber catalogues all presidents (up to Bush I), assigning each to one of four groupings he has devised.  His classification depends on two metrics he assigns the grouping (1) how actively or passively the president performs in his political role, and (2) whether the president enjoys or dislikes the activities that his role requires. When considering the two metrics, Barber draws from five common factors regarding each president: his character, his worldview, his style, his performance in power situations, and the climate of expectations surrounding him.  Barber then clusters and labels the presidents accordingly.

More specifically, Barber labels the aggressive presidents as either “active/positive” or “active/negative,” and the less aggressive and more laid-back chief executives as “passive/positive” or “passive/negative.” The positive or negative portion of Barber’s sorting is determined based on how the president feels toward the political process.  Those who enjoy politics are positively ranked, while those who find politics unpleasant are negatively tagged.

While any such simplistic typology has inherent weaknesses, Barber’s scheme has proven strikingly and surprisingly accurate for president after president, over the years.  For that reason I have continued to return to it for guidance.  Barber’s groups can be summarized as follows:

Active/Negative. These presidents are always potential problem presidents. Accordingly, we are still feeling the aftershocks, not to mention cleaning up the mess, of the last prototypical active/negative president: George W. Bush.  As I wrote in May, 2004, “Not since Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon has the nation been exposed to an active/negative presidency.” At that time I warned, based on Barber’s predictive projections, that what would likely follow under the Bush II presidency was “not something to look forward to.” Unfortunately, this was correct. Active/negative-type presidents typically take bold gambles, and given their dislike of the political process, they don’t analyze the downsides of their actions.

Active/Positive.  These presidents not only aggressively pursue their responsibilities, but also love the job of being the nation’s political leader.  Barber’s catalogue of active/positive presidents includes Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. While Barber did not examine Bill Clinton’s presidency, Clinton too would surely fall within this group. In November 2008, I examined president-elect Barack Obama using Barber’s analytical approach and found Obama to be another prototypical active/positive president. And, indeed, as president, Obama has displayed a striking resemblance to his active/positive predecessors in this category.

Passive/Positive. These presidents are “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 help dispel doubts and lift spirits.” They are able to “soften the harsh edge of politics.” Barber found that Presidents James Madison, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan fell in this group. They are presidents whom Americans loved, but at the end of the day, they had no great accomplishments.

Passive/Negative. This is something of an odd group, for one might ask why such a personality would become involved in politics when he doesn’t like enterprise, and does 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 less than great leaders, because they tend to withdraw and avoid conflict.  Barber’s archetypal 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 has placed among this group are Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

Mitt Romney:  Evidence That, If Elected, He Would Be A Classic Active/Negative President, Much Like George W. Bush

My knowledge of Governor Romney is based on news accounts and two recent biographies: The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, who are both Boston Globe reporters, and Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics by R.B. Scott, once a Utah-based journalist, and also a Mormon like Romney, who moved to Boston. The overwhelming evidence from these sources show that if elected, Romney would be an active/negative president.

To read the news accounts of the well-oiled Romney campaign operation provides conspicuous evidence of his aggressive political nature. The Romney campaign has vigorously sought to demolish his opponents in the early primaries, while at the same time laying a base to attack President Obama in a national campaign. It is an aggressive undertaking, based on years of planning, and robust fund-raising.

Biographers Kranish and Helman report that, as a businessman at Bain Capitol, Romney “followed a trusty formula: pursue data aggressively, analyze rigorously, test constantly, and observe always.”  He handled the Massachusetts governorship in a similarly aggressive fashion. But it is clear that Romney does not really like politics.  Indeed, it has been widely reported that the public political Romney is not truly the man himself.  Rather,  Romney hides his accomplishments as governor, his wealth, and his religion, as he almost robotically pursues the presidency.

For example, Kranish and Helman also report that when a young girl in New Hampshire asked Romney what he would tell her class to make them want to be politicians, he joked that he would not tell them anything or encourage them to enter politics.  But did this deadpanned response actually reveal his true feelings?  Kranish and Helman’s The Real Romney tells the story of Romney’s “uneasy relationship between conviction and vaulting ambition and how political dreams can die when tactics outrun beliefs.”  The Mitt Romney whom they portray does not enjoy political campaigning.

Biographer R. B. Scott, who has known and followed Romney for over twelve years, also reveals Romney’s active/negative approach to politics, which parallels his “straight-ahead approach to life.”  Scott notes of Romney, that: “1) he is a problem solver who rarely takes ‘no’ for an answer; 2) he acts pragmatically and preemptively; 3) he likes to be in control and can be very controlling; 4) he doesn’t read people well—in fact, he expects people … to say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say, and he expects people to listen that way, too; 5) he doesn’t anticipate blindside attacks and therefore is ill- prepared to deal with them; and 6) if he has ever made a mistake, he would rather keep it to himself, always quite sure that whatever it was, in most cases it was probably the result of a misunderstanding, someone not listening carefully or lacking the sense God gave a goose.”

Unlike, say, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, who each connect easily with people and enjoy the push and pull of politics, we are all watching Romney suffer the agony of the political process simply because enduring that process is necessary to reach his ambition.

To me, Romney is strikingly Nixonian in his public awkwardness, and distaste for politics, not to mention his accompanying political aggressiveness. (But Romney is far less knowledgeable about the ways of Washington and the world than was Nixon.)  To continue the comparison, I suspect Romney is, at heart, even more moderate than Nixon, who today is far to the left of center. (And I suspect, based on his work at Bain Capital, that Romney is every bit as ruthless a process politician as Nixon was.)

To be blunt, I do not believe that the country can handle another active/negative president—not at this time, anyway.  President Obama, who is a classic active/positive, must be given the opportunity to finish the job that he has started, which has largely consisted of cleaning up the mess George W. Bush left behind. James David Barber’s analytical tool has proven to be too uncannily predictive to ignore, so hopefully others will take note of his insightful analysis, think of what is best for the country, and vote accordingly.

Posted in: Politics

  • Joe Simmons

    Thank you for the laughs, Mr. Dean.

    You may have believed what you wrote in 2008:

    “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.”

    Since then, more evidence has come to light than his books and speeches – namely the Obama presidency. Think back to Obama’s lack of presence during the debate on the healthcare bill. His lack of leadership on immigration reform. His constant rounds of golf. Think of the constant wails of Democrats that Obama refused to take on Republicans; and the cries of Republicans that Obama refused to negotiate. Go back and read the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza (“The Obama Memos”).

    No matter how you paint it, it’s not the portrait of a man who enjoys the rough and tumble of politics, the necessary engagement and leadership of the presidency. It’s the portrait of a man who is insulated, detached, wary, and frustrated.

    I appreciate your ability to craft this political rhetoric that can put “Romney,” “Bush,” and “negative” together in a pseudo-scientific paradigm, while lumping Obama in with a couple of very accomplished presidents as well as Jimmy Carter. And stating that Reagan had no great accomplishments was comedy gold.

    Look again at this category (which includes Bush): “Active/negative-type presidents typically take bold gambles, and given
    their dislike of the political process, they don’t analyze the downsides
    of their actions.”

    A bold gamble like the ACA, which has proven greatly unpopular? Like the contraception rule out of HHS which has caught Obama unawares? Like attacking Libya without congressional approval? Like making “recess appointments” while Congress is not in recess? (Just imagine Romney pursuing these latter 2 courses of action and how “positive” you think that would be.)

    Again, I thank you, Mr. Dean.

  • KBL

    You are correct, you have over simplified the situation and as a result come to the conclusion you desired.  Obama must go.  In my opinion, he is 20x worse than “W” and has no clue what the hell he is doing.  My guess, you’re a fan of another round of QE too.

  • Erik

    Unbelievable hogwash. I find the criteria for classification highly suspect and the conclusions about results of presidencies grossly inaccurate. Can’t you even pretend to be objective?

    • ManWithThe1000PoundBrain

      The model is not Dean’s. It’s based on political scientist James Barber’s Presidential Character which was, for decades, a staple in political science classes.

  • Shannon Jacobs

    While the analysis seems as insightful as may of Mr Dean’s presentations, I mostly feel unconvinced because Romney’s motivations remain so obscure. It seems to me that there must be some deep motivation in there somewhere, something that Romney is hiding in his soul of souls (assuming you believe in souls). His dogged pursuit of political office just doesn’t seem to make any rational sense in the context of today’s neo-GOP. Romney always wants something, but I really can’t imagine what it is… I’m willing to eliminate money as something he doesn’t need more of. It’s true that some people never get enough, but it seems clear that Romney has made a transition from making money to focusing on public service as he conceives it–but that just doesn’t make sense when you look at the neo-GOP, which is basically against the notice of public service.

    Actually, my feeling is that Romney is quite pragmatic, and under certain impossible circumstances I think he could do a fair job as president. Unfortunately, there is no way he could wind up with a Congress having 70 progressive senators. In that impossible scenario, Romney’s lack of principles could work quite well. (However a Romney victory would make that impossible. The neo-GOP will not nominate ANY possible progressive for senator, and the Democrats could not win a strong Senate majority in conjunction with a Romney win, nor is it plausible that the Democrats could come up with 70 progressive senators on their own in any case.)

    In conclusion, I still love my country, and I’m sure that the neo-GOP politicians do, too. However, in my case it’s more and more like the love of a close relative with a terminal condition. From that perspective, I think President Obama was greatly surprised when he was able to examine the patient’s ‘medical’ records after he won in 2008…

    • ManWithThe1000PoundBrain

      Regarding Romney’s motivation, it’s really simple. He just thought it would be really “cool” to be President–something he could scratch off his bucket list.

  • Anonymous

    The classification “active/positive” is useless,  in my view, as shown by its application to Barack Obama.    That Mr Dean admittedly first applied it to BO in November, 2008,  could be understood as simply premature, but later to find justification by comparison with his predecessors, named, is faulty.   Their only common trait as I observe is affability.   Lincoln had a goal: to preserve the Union;   Obama’s only goal is self-aggrandizement.   FDR cared about ordinary Americans; Obama cares only about ingratiating himself with the elite.    Truman, too, cared about American working people.   Kennedy and Carter were short-timers, but at least Carter has shown himself to care about the poor;  Obama never even mentions them.    All of the other presidents had positive character traits along with some faults.   There is nothing positive in the character of Barack Obama:  He is unprincipled, dishonest, weak and lacking in humanity.

    That the “active/positive” classification could encompass two of our country’s best presidents (Lincoln, FDR) with its worst, Barack Obama, demonstrates what a useless classification it is.  

  • Anonymous

    The classification “active/positive” is useless,  in my view, as shown by its application to Barack Obama.    That Mr Dean admittedly first applied it to BO in November, 2008,  could be understood as simply premature, but later to find justification by comparison with his predecessors, named, is faulty.   Their only common trait as I observe is affability.   Lincoln had a goal: to preserve the Union;   Obama’s only goal is self-aggrandizement.   FDR cared about ordinary Americans; Obama cares only about ingratiating himself with the elite.    Truman, too, cared about American working people.   Kennedy and Carter were short-timers, but at least Carter has shown himself to care about the poor;  Obama never even mentions them.    All of the other presidents had positive character traits along with some faults.   There is nothing positive in the character of Barack Obama:  He is unprincipled, dishonest, weak and lacking in humanity.

    That the “active/positive” classification could encompass two of our country’s best presidents (Lincoln, FDR) with its worst, Barack Obama, demonstrates what a useless classification it is.  

  • Anonymous

    If the moderator does not respond within an hour or two, then the comments cannot be interactive to any reasonable degree.    That discourages interest in the website as a place for the exchange of views.

  • am I the only person who thinks Mr Dean is describing someone who is on the aspergers/autism spectrum somewhere ?
    unable to read people, obsessed with data, unable to dealwith unexpected situations…
     

  • Mer

    Big suprise on how you categorize the republicans in this article given your obvious liberal ideologies.

  • I strongly agree with the posting of Joe Simmons. If my memory serves me well, Former White House counsel John W. Dean III, was charged with obstruction of justice and spent four months in prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up. Now he is an investment banker in Beverly Hills, and Dean is also the author of the Watergate memoirs “Blind Ambition” and “Lost Honor, ” as well as a book on Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. correctly, so he may also have a hidden agenda in trying to paint Mitt Romney as an “active but negative” president should he be elected! Obviously Mr. Dean is entitled to his own opinion, however, to characterize his opinion utilizing James David Barber’s so called “predictive” analytical “tool” is a poor way of bashing Mitt Romney and avoiding the truth behind doing so! Shame on you J.W. Dean!

    • Anonymous

       No, your memory does NOT serve you right, but it’s often easier to attack the person when your own position can’t stand on it’s merits. That’s the convenience of ad hominem argumentation (and the lifeblood of neo-GOP politics).

  • I’ve actually considered Mitt Romney more of a Passive-Negative: he only seemed to be running as a form of Duty (a key P-N trait) to his father’s political legacy, with the open disdain for politics itself (you’ve noted that pretty well) the best-shared trait with an A-N. His entire political career seemed geared towards making the White House, but he never expressed any joy or delight in reaching for it. The post-election reveals from his family that “Mitt never really wanted it anyway” may sound like sour grapes, but it may actually reflect that P-N belief.

  • Christopher Weeks

    I too consider myself as a follower of Barber’s analysis with its warts and all. That said, and with the understanding that I think we need a little historical perspective before confirming the actual label, President Obama is anything but active-positive! His “leading from behind” foreign policy, his refusal to deal with the congress he has been dealt (remember when he started in 2004 he had two subsequent years with both houses), his incessant golfing and vacationing and his failure to do anything bold with regard to the economy demonstrate his passive-negative nature. I will concede he is absolutely active positive when it comes to campaigning but this is not helping his Presidency. I understand that those who appreciate the high hopes with which he came into the Presidency and the historical significance and pride of our First African American (actually Bi-Racial) President will not accept this label. It is not about potential or wishful thinking. The proof is in the pudding and in this case, at this juncture, he is passive-negative.