President Theodore Roosevelt, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, possessed “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.” (Some historians think Holmes was describing TR’s nephew Franklin, but no matter.) If pundits are to be believed, President Obama suffers from the opposite condition: he has a first-class intellect, but a temperament that, as recent events indicate, seems ill-suited to acting with the urgency and decisiveness necessary to deal with crises both home and abroad.
In previous posts I’ve dealt with the question of Obama’s character, and the relative role of intellect versus temperament more generally as a determinant of presidential effectiveness, but the issue has resurfaced recently due in no small part to efforts by Republicans to frame this midterm election as a referendum on the Obama presidency. In particular, they have cited what they see as the President’s inability to deal with crises in a timely, effective fashion – a failing they attribute to his passive demeanor and lawyer-like decisionmaking tendencies. Obama’s passive temperament, they argue, too often leads to decisionmaking paralysis, with the consequence that the administration has been slow to act on a succession of crises, ranging from the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria to the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatist movement to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Josh Green’s recent column criticizing Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak neatly encapsulates this recurring theme: “The White House response to this latest national crisis had already run a familiar course: the initial assurance that everything was under control; the subsequent realization that it wasn’t; the delay as administration officials appeared conflicted about what to do; and the growing frustration with a president who seemed a step or two behind each new development.” Moreover, Green argues, this pattern of too little, too late is all too familiar: “If all this feels frustratingly familiar, many former White House officials agree. The difficulty in formulating a response echoes the fitful efforts to address the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the advance of Islamic State, the rollout of healthcare.gov, and even the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo.”
In response, Obama’s defenders, such as the Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, argue that the President’s detached, analytical manner is in fact a temperamental strong suit that prevents him from overreacting to events for the sake of appearances. As an example, Yglesias points to Obama’s willingness to ignore his advisers’ advice to give up on health care reform in the aftermath of Scott Brown’s surprise Senate victory.
What are we to make of these conflicting views? Part of the problem is that our view of Obama’s “temperament” is invariably colored by broader assessments of his presidency. In this regard, Green’s critique is not new – pundits have been criticizing Obama’s “no drama” persona since at least the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that cost Democrats control of the House, and the criticism figures prominently in recent memoirs by former administration officials. At the start of Obama’s presidency, however, these very traits were viewed by pundits as a welcome alternative to his predecessor George W. Bush’s impetuous, even reckless decisionmaking style. As William Buckley’s son Christopher put it in 2008 when he announced that despite his conservative heritage he was voting for Obama: “He has exhibited throughout a ‘first-class temperament,’ pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous comment about FDR.” (Never mind that Holmes was probably referring to the other Roosevelt.) In contrast, it was Obama’s opponent John McCain who, Buckley believed, seemed temperamentally ill-suited to be president.
But there is a deeper problem with the analyses by Yglesias, Green, Buckley and others: it is that they overstate the degree to which temperament and character can help predict presidential effectiveness. This is not to say that a president’s temperament has no bearing on a president’s performance. It is to say, however, that when it comes to explaining why presidents make the choices they do, temperament rarely plays a controlling role. Consider Green’s critique of Obama’s handling of recent crises: are these “fitful efforts” really a function of the President’s temperament? Or do they reflect a combination of difficult problems, incomplete information, and uncertain (and often complex) solutions that are only partially, if at all, under Obama’s control? Would a president with a different set of temperamental traits – say, Bush’s “decisiveness” – proved any more effective at handling the Ebola outbreak? (This presumes, of course, that one accepts it has been mishandled in the first place.) As I’ve discussed on several occasions, it is hard to distinguish the two presidents’ handling of the War on Terror in its broad outlines despite the apparent gulf separating their respective temperaments.
Part of the issue here is that pundits don’t have the luxury of peeking behind the curtain to see whether and how temperament influences presidential behavior. The celebrated presidential scholar Richard Neustadt once proclaimed that the presidency was no “place for amateurs”. At the time he wrote this line in 1960 he was thinking about President Dwight Eisenhower who, despite remaining personally popular during two terms in office, appeared unwilling to risk that popularity in pursuit of controversial policies, such as civil rights. But subsequent research indicates that Eisenhower, despite the criticism of his passive, detached decisionmaking style, was in fact far more engaged and influential behind the scenes than his public demeanor seemed to suggest, particularly in the foreign policy realm. Neustadt acknowledged as much in subsequent editions of his study of the presidency. Future scholars may yet find evidence of Obama’s “hidden hand” leadership.
But a more fundamental problem is determining what aspects of a president’s temperament matters, and when. Anyone who has listened to the Cuban Missile Crisis tapes (as I have) can’t help but be struck by how President Kennedy resisted the pressure from almost all his advisers, including his brother Robert, to take out a Soviet-controlled surface-to-air missile site after it shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane. It often seems that JFK is the only one in the room who fully contemplates the ramifications of a U.S. military attack on Cuba. Of course, this was the same JFK who less than two years earlier had approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion designed to topple the Castro regime. It was the same JFK who engaged in reckless dalliances throughout his presidency with a string of women that, among other effects, left him open to blackmail from his FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It was the same JFK who throughout his presidency sought ways to assassinate Castro through any means possible.
My point is that it is too easy to point to temperament as the deciding factor in explaining presidential behavior, never mind why some presidents succeed and others do not. This is because it is hard to observe aspects of temperament in play during a presidency. But even when biographers and others peel back the curtain to document a presidency after the fact, it remains very difficult to separate out the impact of a president’s temperament from the myriad other factors that influence why a president acts as he did. In crucial instances, as in the Cuban Missile crisis, a president’s temperament may be the deciding factor in determining how events play out. But it is more often the case, I believe, that because presidential choices are often so constrained by factors outside their control, temperament has little bearing on whether presidents succeed or not. This won’t stop Republicans from citing Obama’s “crisis of competence” as a reason to vote out Democrats come November. But it should make voters think twice about accepting that particular argument.
Addendum 9:13 p.m. Josh Green tweets me to point out that, in fact, he did “peek behind the curtain” via his interviews with White House aides. That’s a fair point. Moreover, as I noted in my original post, former administration officials like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have noted Obama’s lawyer-like tendencies. So this aspect of Obama’s “temperament” is well noted, if these sources can be trusted. It does raise the question, however, just how important this aspect of his personality is in terms of explaining how the President has responded to various recent crises. It is impossible to fully answer that question in the course of a single blog post, but I’ll try to give it another shot in a post on Monday.