What psychological personality tests reveal about Clinton, Obama, and McCain.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 20 2008 6:50 AM

The Supervisor, the Champion, and the Promoter

What psychological personality tests reveal about Clinton, Obama, and McCain.

Emily Yoffe was online on Feb. 21 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, I applied the principles of personality assessment, based on the theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung, to candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. Forgive me if it sounds like gloating, but here's what my research revealed about the personality type of the future 43rd president of the United States: "They are decisive and little bothered by second thoughts and self-doubt." "Since [they] do not reflect very much on their errors or analyze their mistakes to any great extent, it is difficult for them to learn from their errors, and so they can become caught in a loop, repeating their mistakes."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

It's time again to apply the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to our presidential candidates. (I did not include Mike Huckabee in my evaluations, because I couldn't bring myself to imagine a Huckabee administration.) The MBTI was developed by a mother-daughter team that wanted a practical application for the ideas of personality developed by Jung. By mixing and matching four poles of personal style—extravert and introvert being the best known—the women came up with 16 personality types. Read more about it here. For reference, I used two books co-authored by MBTI consultant Otto Kroeger, Type Talk and Type Talk at Work. And I relied on psychologist David Keirsey's revision of the 16 personality types. Keirsey sorted these into four overarching categories: Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals. (He describes his classifications in the book Please Understand Me II and at this Web site,  www.keirsey.com.)

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Such personality testing is often derided by academia, but it's used widely by corporations, the military, and government to understand different leadership styles and the dynamics of working in groups. Finding out your personality type requires answering dozens of questions such as, "Do you find visionaries and theorists a) somewhat annoying [or] b) rather fascinating?" and "When finishing a job, do you like to a) tie up all the loose ends [or] b) move on to something else)?" Figuring the candidates wouldn't fill out their own questionnaires, I studied their biographies and came to my own conclusions.

Hillary Clinton is a Guardian, and her specific type is an ESTJ, what Keirsey calls "the Supervisor." Supervisors are, Keirsey says, steadfast, cautious, methodical. They are the reliable, detail-oriented people without whom organizations and society fall apart—which is something ESTJs won't hesitate to point out. "[T]heir first instinct is to take charge and tell others what to do," says Keirsey. They are "devoted public servants, seeing their role in government … in almost sacred terms of self-sacrifice and service to others." This service is an obligation, not given "freely and joyously." As columnist Richard Cohen observed about Hillary, "Whether she meant to or not, she has presented herself as a model of caution, of experience hard-earned and not enjoyed. …"

Keirsey says Guardians' "self-esteem is greatest when they present themselves as dependable, trustworthy or accountable in shouldering their responsibilities." In other words, an ESTJ wants everyone to know she's "ready to be president on Day 1." According to Please Understand Me II (all the quotes are from the books), about half of our presidents, from George Washington to George H.W. Bush, have been Guardians, with Harry Truman being an ESTJ like Hillary (she loves to quote Truman's "The buck stops here.").

Guardian leaders are not the big thinkers or the bold doers (although they can take bold action if they carefully conclude that's what the circumstance requires). They have, says Keirsey, "a stabilizing and consolidating effect." In a New Yorker profile of Hillary, George Packer wrote that her now-infamous remark that it took a president to realize Martin Luther King's dream reflected Hillary's belief that "the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society."

ESTJs are most comfortable in the world of the specific. Keirsey says they will listen politely to "theoretical or fanciful" conversation—what an ESTJ surely thinks of as a certain other candidate's gasbaggery—then "shift to more concrete things to talk about, more solid and sensible topics" using their ability to call up at will "an enormous fund of facts." (Ever heard a Hillary speech?)

It is this ESTJ-ness that may explain the failure of Hillary's health-care initiative as first lady. ESTJs like nothing better than digging deep into the specifics of a system and batting out proposals with trusted staff, then presenting the perfect fait accompli to a grateful public. As Kroeger points out, ESTJs can be stunned when the plans fail: "Having packaged the argument so neatly and precisely, how could anyone possibly disagree?" Keirsey says this blindness comes from the concrete-thinking ESTJ's pronounced weakness at the abstract arts of strategy and diplomacy. Hillary neither foresaw the attacks by competing interests nor had the people skills to win over her opponents.

Referring to ESTJs, Kroeger says, "[O]f all the sixteen types this is the most conventionally masculine." The New York Times' Maureen Dowd pointed out that actor Jack Nicholson called Hillary "the best man for the job," and Hillary said on David Letterman, "In my White House, we'll know who wears the pantsuits." But Hillary also revealed the struggle of the ESTJ woman when she told Packer, "[T]he world is only beginning to recognize that women should be permitted the same range of leadership styles that we permit men."

The Guardians' steadfast posture also applies to their marriages. Keirsey writes that they are "extremely loyal to their mates and feel obliged to stand by them in times of trouble and help them straighten up and fly right. As a result, Guardians more easily than any other temperament can be hooked into becoming the rescuer of troubled mates." (Bill Clinton is an ESFP, what Keirsey calls "the Performer"—"thriving on the excitement of being on-stage." ESFPs are also "inclined to be impulsive and self-indulgent, which makes them vulnerable to seduction.")

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