The late political scientist and presidential scholar James David Barber believed that character determined how the occupant of the American presidency would perform in the job, and that psychology provided a predictive tool regarding performance in that high office. The Duke University professor developed his classification system for presidents based on their world views and personal interaction with their work.
I became aware of Barber’s work because of his startlingly prescient analysis of Richard Nixon, who he predicted would have great difficulty by his second term as president. Starting with George W. Bush’s second term, in a column I wrote dated May 24, 2004, I began looking at presidents through Barber’s cataloging of presidents, with stunning results. I applied Barber’s system again with Barack Obama for a November 14, 2008 column with similar revealing results. Now that Donald Trump has passed the one-hundred-day mark in his presidency, there is a solid basis of information upon which to employ Barber’s type-analysis to predict his performance during his presidency.
Professor Barber first published his system in 1972 in The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, updating it in 1977, 1985 and 1992. The study addresses presidents through George H. W. Bush. The book was written to give voters tools to examine presidential candidates for insights about how they would perform if elected. But understanding how candidates might do in the Oval Office has only interested most voters after they have made their decision.
The Presidential Character shows that based on history presidents can be grouped in four psychological categories, which Barber labeled as “active/positive,” “active/negative,” “passive/positive,” and “passive/negative.” More specifically, and as I have explained in the prior columns, broad explanations only provide a crude understanding of Barber’s designation while his work provides historical explanations. Barber groups 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 is how presidents react toward their work: “positively” or “negatively.” Generally, he determines whether 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?” To draw (quote and paraphrase) from my prior summaries, but not in the same order:
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. Barber says surprisingly little about Abraham Lincoln, but he appears to be the first of several great presidents who were active/positive types. Other active/positive presidents Barber names are Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and, by my analysis, Barack Obama.
Active/Negative. I will return to active/negative presidents, but they often take bold moves – and this group includes presidents like John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. Those in this group 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 help 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.
Donald Trump is an active/negative. In fact, he is a stronger version of this category than all whom Barber collected during his analysis, and more so than George W. Bush, whom I found fell into this group.
There can be no doubt about Trump’s being active. He literally is on the job 24/7; when not in his office or making an official trip, he is on the telephone or tweeting, related to his work as president. He is a workaholic. (See, e.g., Time magazine’s account “Trump After Hours.” Nor is there any question of his being negative under Barber’s test. Trump can force a smile for the camera, but he never laughs, particularly at himself. His Twitter account reveals a man constantly complaining or whining about most everything. His only enjoyment in the job is that it feeds his insatiable narcissistic appetite for attention, which is not the type of positive reinforcement and emotional reward Barber describes to be an active/positive. Listen to Barber’s description of the active/negative:
The active/negative type is, in the first place, much taken up with self-concern. His attention keeps returning to himself, his problems, how is he doing, as if he were forever watching himself. The character of that attention is primarily evaluative with respect to power. Am I winning or losing, gaining or falling.
The active/negative lives in a dangerous world—a world not only threatening in a definite way but also highly uncertain, a world one can cope with only by maintaining a tense, wary readiness for danger. The prime threat is other people; he tends to divide humanity into the weak and the grasping, although he may also, with no feeling of inconsistency, idealize “the people” in a romantic way. In struggling to understand social causality, he restricts the explanations to conspiracy or chaos, fluctuating between images of tight, secret control and images of utter disorder. He strives to resolve decisional conflicts by invoking abstract principles in order to render manageable a too complex reality.
Trump as an active/negative forewarns of trouble. First, look at his predecessors active/negatives: Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and Bush II. These are failed presidencies. If there is one lesson from Barber’s work it is do not put active/negatives in the White House. Since that has happened, the next lesson is prepare for trouble.
Interestingly, the American people understand we have a disaster in the White House with Trump. His approval ratings have been in the tank since his first day in office. At the one-hundred-day mark in the presidency of Donald Trump, the Quinnipiac poll asked Americans for the one word they felt best described the new president. The four leading words (ranked in order) are as stunning as they are accurate: “idiot,” “incompetent,” “liar,” and “unqualified.” Most Americans and most of the world have figured out the Trump presidency, and they are braced for the worst. May it end with the 2020 election, if not sooner. Barber did not have to deal with a lying, unqualified, and incompetent idiot who was an active/negative. But he would surely find we are in a dangerous place.