Barack Obama makes big decisions the same way George W. Bush did. He gathers his top advisers around the table, quizzes them, and then leaves to make the final call in solitude. This is how Bush invaded Iraq and how Obama killed Osama Bin Laden.
“The Loneliest Job” is the name of the iconic picture of John F. Kennedy standing alone staring out the south window of the Oval Office. It captured the presidency so perfectly Bill Clinton hung it in his private office. It depicts an essential truth: This job rests on one human body and one mind. In minutes, a president must switch from smiling with college volleyball champions in the East Room to deciding whether to risk the life of some mother’s child. No matter what he is feeling inside, he must appear confident and optimistic—whether the audience is the voting public or his own staff. He holds enormous secrets, and usually can’t talk about them. (Obama never told his wife about the planning for the Bin Laden raid.) A president must live in a world of constant uncertainty, where either a failure to act or hasty action can lead to catastrophe and political ruin.
A president’s temperament is his most important quality and it is the hardest to measure in the candidates who desire the office. It is at the heart of all the other key attributes. A president can’t ignore his critics unless he has a reliable sense of himself. He can’t make durable decisions unless he has strong values in which he roots them. The political game requires patience, and a willingness to ignore one’s emotions. He can’t adapt unless he has the emotional maturity to accept the fallout.
A president must maintain that delicate balance of mind in one of the world’s most distorted, artificial, and constraining environments. "There are blessed intervals when I forget by one means or another that I am President of the United States," wrote Woodrow Wilson. Bill Clinton called the White House the nicest facility in the federal penal system. Your time is not your own. You have valets, butlers, aides, and bodyguards watching every lift of your finger, but the things you truly want—quick action in Congress, the agreement of a foreign leader, an ice cream on a summer night—are maddeningly out of your reach.
Under that kind of pressure, a president is also denied the normal tools of relaxation. He can't take a stroll through Georgetown. He can't drink too much or blow off Sunday in sweat pants watching football in his friend's basement. If a president goes on vacation at the wrong time or in the wrong way, he catches hell. Golf must be in moderation. If you once enjoyed journaling, your lawyers will tell you to cut it out. Journals can be subpoenaed. If you are ever caught whining on a bad day, it will define you more than a hundred good days. “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” said LBJ. “There's nothing to do but stand there and take it.”
No wonder Nixon wound up talking to the paintings in the hallways. It's a surprise that more presidents aren't found mumbling to themselves in their nightclothes. Perhaps that’s why Ann Romney mused recently about her husband being president: “I think my biggest concern obviously would just be for his mental well-being.”
What issues will test your temperament the most and why?
Nothing tests a president’s temperament like foreign affairs. Though this presidential campaign has only recently touched on the topic, the lack of focus points to another flaw in our election system. If we arranged our campaigns around what a president actually can control, we wouldn’t spend the majority of our time talking about the economy, where a president is a bit player.
Not so in foreign affairs. A president is the last word on decisions regarding military strikes, covert operations, or how to treat political prisoners. George W. Bush signed off on every prisoner that faced enhanced interrogation techniques. Barack Obama personally approves every drone strike of a high-value terrorist target. When the president serves as the country’s chief diplomat, he acts almost entirely alone.
To understand how a candidate would handle national security issues, we should ask some tough questions—what are the lessons of the Iraq war? Is Egypt an ally? At what moment would a military strike on Iran be justified? These national security questions are important on their face, but also because they keep us focused on temperament—the internal fortitude required for the office. A president will be largely alone when he makes these decisions. Does he have the stuff to handle the weight of these calls? Does he care about human rights? Civil liberties? On other issues, he may be buffeted by Congress and the public. But on the international stage he decides what the United States believes.
For this reason, Mitt Romney was right to question President Obama’s overheard remarks to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it's important for him to give me space,” the president said. “This is my last election. … After my election I have more flexibility.” He sure will, and if he’s going to be cutting deals on our behalf we should know about it.
Of course, there are plenty of foreign policy decisions we shouldn’t know about. For a president, foreign policy is also a test of one’s ability to compartmentalize—another key element of temperament.
The night before the Bin Laden raid President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. He told jokes and appeared to have a great time, a man at ease in a breezy world. But he was on the cusp of possibly the most defining moment of his presidency. It wasn’t just that night that Obama had to compartmentalize. He’d been doing it for weeks. During the lead up to the decision to storm Bin Laden’s compound, the president had been dealing with a government shutdown, a big speech on the budget, the start of his presidential campaign, the birth-certificate follies, and the bombing of Libya. If you look at his schedule on one of those days, you see that he ran a national-security meeting on the Bin Laden question in between a trip to a middle school and a visit from Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark.
Obama was regularly accused of being too soft on Iran. But what we now know from David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal is that from the start of his administration Obama has been intimately involved in the covert operations against the Islamic Republic. “Perhaps not since Lyndon Johnson had sat in the same room, more than four decades before, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam, had a president of the United States been so intimately involved in the step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation’s infrastructure,” writes Sanger.
You know how satisfying that scene is in Annie Hall when Woody Allen dispatches the blowhard behind him in line at the movies? A president could do that almost any day with the secret information he has. Good ones never do.
Compartmentalization requires equanimity. A president must be able to handle a roller coaster of good and bad news in such succession that he can neither get too high nor too low. The private anguish LBJ felt at losing Vietnam ate away at his presidency. Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman’s journals show how Nixon’s obsessions led him to drink and bouts of insomnia that robbed him of his reasoning faculties. “I was concerned about his condition,” Haldeman wrote during the Vietnam protests in May of 1970. “The decision, the speech, the aftermath, killings, riots, press etc.; the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper, and mood suffer badly as a result.”
To relieve the pressure, all presidents try to create coping mechanisms. As President Obama told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair, he has had to recognize that there is a public Barack Obama who bears no resemblance to himself. He must disassociate himself from himself. “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you.”
A president must be able to live in constant uncertainty. George W. Bush was derided for calling himself the “decider,” but that’s what a president does: He makes decisions. No easy decision makes it to his desk, so at its most basic, the presidency is a place where a man has agreed to take on the responsibility for huge failures. As Obama explained to Michael Lewis, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with at 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
David Herbert Donald, the famous Lincoln biographer, attaches Keats' phrase "negative capability" to the 16th president, which the poet described as "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." The mythical view of the president is of a bold planner who wills the country to his view of things. Lincoln, like FDR, preferred to respond to the actions of others, which meant a constant state of uncertainty, evaluation, and choice. Situations had to ripen; most notably, slavery.
What previous job presented you with the most decision-making moments?
James Fallows, in his sweeping assessment of Obama, talks about the “decision making muscle.” That is the particular challenge for presidential candidates with no executive experience, someone like Sen. Obama in 2008. The presidency is like no other job, but candidates with less experience offer less of a clue about how their decision-making muscle works and whether it can grow.
A president’s ability to make decisions is crucial and finite. President Bush understood that he needed to husband his energy for decision-making. He used to interrupt squabbling staffers and ask, “Is this something you want to waste the president of the United States’ time on?” It may sound arrogant, but as a senior Bush aide explained, it was a move of self-preservation. When you have to make so many decisions, you must preserve your energy for the important ones. Irritating disputes on nonessential matters can be adjudicated easily enough, but they eat into your battery power.
President Obama steels himself by intentionally limiting the number of decisions he makes in a day. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
A man who is as good at concealing his emotions as Barack Obama was on the eve of the Bin Laden raid is proof that he is fit for the presidency’s most challenging duties. But it’s also proof of exactly why campaigns tell us so little about temperament. We can be fooled by appearances, which is all we have to go on during campaign season.
How do we determine whether a candidate has the temperament necessary to withstand the presidential life? Candidates release their medical records, but a psychological evaluation is not part of the process. Good thing, too. The lack of clinical specificity gives those of us who cover campaigns a lot of room to put candidates on the couch. Tell me about your mother …
While the press is casing the house, trying to throw open one small window to get at a candidate’s personality, he and his team are building fences. There are no long free-flowing interviews; reporters are kept from the rope line so they don’t hear a stray honest remark; and before any fundraiser all cellphones are supposed to be turned off so no moment of serendipity is revealed.
In the place of authenticity comes a shrink-wrapped facsimile. Campaigns manufacture or embellish anecdotes to create a false intimacy that fits whatever the electorate seems to want at the time. This storytelling was on display at the recent Republican and Democratic Party conventions, which offered a parade of vignettes of character, perseverance, and determination. Ann Romney talked about bygone days, eating tuna fish with her young husband and using a living room ironing board to give insight into the impenetrable Romney. First lady Michelle Obama painted a picture of her husband at his desk, alone at night staring into the problems of the world.
For some candidates, their temperamental qualities may be obvious during a campaign. Kennedy was so physically frail he had to sneak into the Navy. But anyone who had the grit to rescue a man by swimming for six miles, dragging him by a belt he held in his teeth, probably could be trusted to not buckle at the first sign of adversity.
FDR's polio gave us a hint that he would be able to endure the rude discipline of the office. His sunny response to adversity would have equipped him with the balance to know that all is not lost, even when it might first seem that way. The illness no doubt also gave him sympathy for those who had also suffered. "There had been a plowing up of his nature," Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, said of his polio. "The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of philosophical concepts."
But even Roosevelt hid a lot from the public. If there was ever a president confident in his abilities, it was FDR. I don’t even have to repeat the cliché about fear, as it is already engrained into your memory. Yet inside Roosevelt was terrified, according to Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. “I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job,” Roosevelt said to his son in 1932 after defeating Herbert Hoover. “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope that you will pray for me, too, Jimmy.”
Despite those fears, Perkins said that she "came away from an interview with the president feeling better not because he had solved any problems," but because he had somehow made her feel more cheerful, more determined, stronger than she had felt when she went into the room. George Bush described this role as being the “backbone” of his administration.
A president must constantly show a face to those around him of confidence, Eisenhower believed. Fred Greenstein writes that it was a lesson he learned as a military commander. “Optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head down than in any direction,” Eisenhower wrote, and from then on he “firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory.”
What’s the biggest crisis you’ve faced in your life?
Character flaws in a president can end in tragedy. JFK didn’t live long enough for his infidelities to compromise him, but a variety of his chroniclers have argued that they ultimately would have. LBJ might not have clung to a self-defeating strategy in Vietnam were he not so concerned about what East Coast elites would say about him. Nixon's lack of self-confidence and mounting paranoia drew a straight line to Watergate.
So how can you look for tell-tale signs of good temperament in a candidate? It’s very hard. One place to look could be a moment in a candidate’s past that reveals his true nature. Teddy Roosevelt ran for office having had horses shot out from underneath him. Voters knew he could handle a crisis. When he was shot in the chest while campaigning for office—and finished the speech before accepting any medical treatment—that certainly told voters everything they needed to know about his tenacity.
Of course, standing tall through one crisis doesn’t guarantee that one will succeed in the next. Kennedy’s toughness during the PT-109 episode didn’t help him with the Bay of Pigs. And just because someone didn’t have a searing experience in their youth doesn’t mean they can’t stand up to the pressures to come. Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War, but freely admitted that the toughest enemy he faced was the mosquitoes. He also faced at least half a dozen bouts of debilitating depression during his life. Today, if a candidate’s battle with depression became public, he would almost certainly never be elected. But it may have been Lincoln’s ability to endure this suffering that gave him his stamina for office.
Lyndon Johnson faced no great crisis—he claimed he’d been targeted on a bombing run over Japan, but there’s no evidence of it—yet he knew exactly what to do in the hours after Kennedy’s assassination. He knew he needed to establish immediate legitimacy as the new president, while creating a moment that showed that the grieving members of Kennedy’s family supported the transition of power. So he drew the first lady and Bobby Kennedy close in those early hours after the shooting. Johnson hadn’t learned this from a personal crisis. He knew what the country needed from having spent a career sensitive to the public mood.
There are moments when the challenge of a campaign tests a candidate’s ability to make decisions under pressure. In the fall of 2008, in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bank collapse, John McCain suspended his campaign. Obama did not. For months, the Obama campaign had been pushing the idea that the 76-year-old former fighter pilot was unreliable. Now he seemed to be lurching, while the one-term senator looked cool and steady. "Before he said anything, he wanted to understand," said Bill Clinton, describing Obama's process of deliberation about the financial crisis. "If we have learned anything over the last eight years, it's that we need a president who wants to understand—who can understand."
When Romney chose to insert himself in the early hours after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, commentators drew an analogy to the McCain moment. Had Romney shown that he wasn’t ready to be commander in chief because he inserted himself too early in an international crisis?
Observers saw these two moments as core tests of temperament. Only to a point. In both of those instances the campaigns were trying to pantomime presidential action, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they were actual tests. No lives were on the line. No decisions made in secret could undermine the constitution. The stakes were relatively low, and the spotlight wasn't nearly so bright.
The murder of an American ambassador and three of his colleagues created a crisis for Obama, but the challenge for Romney was purely political. He was trailing in the polls and thought the president was vulnerable for his leadership overseas. Romney read the landscape and thought he saw an opening to take a free shot. Polls suggest people think he made the wrong call. He failed the political test, not the commander-in-chief test. The best we can say is that if campaigns can’t make the right political call under pressure, they won’t be able to make the tougher calls of the presidency.
The closest equivalent for a candidate is when an unexpected disclosure threatens to destroy a campaign. In 1992, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Jennifer Flowers announced her longtime affair with Bill Clinton. For a campaign that is an existential test, a moment that carries a similar type of risk as a president staring down a crisis for his administration.
Making clean evaluations of temperament is also tricky because some qualities that can seem unappealing can actually be helpful in office. We don't like arrogant candidates. "A self-made man, he was distressingly proud of his maker," historian Thomas Bailey wrote of the hapless Andrew Johnson. (Johnson, who had apprenticed to a tailor, sometimes liked to remind audiences that Jesus, a carpenter, had also worked with his hands.) It was Obama’s sense of self-regard the Mitt Romney poked fun at during his convention speech. "He promised the oceans will rise and the earth would begin to heal," Romney said. "I just want to help you and your family."
For many of Obama's critics, his excessive fondness for himself was an easily identifiable flaw. Voters should have rejected him when he took his celebritylike trip of Europe. But if you are a supporter you want a president to have that confidence. In Obama's case, it was his own sense of his place in history that kept his focus on reforming health care. "There was a strain of messianism in Barack Obama, a determination to change the course of history," writes Noam Scheiber in The Escape Artists. "And it was this determination that explained his reluctance to abandon his presidential vision. Recessions would come and go, even recessions as painful as this one. But the big achievements—like health care and climate change—were the accomplishments that posterity would recall.”
That confirms the Republican critique: He launched an expensive and distracting health care crusade out of personal grandiosity. But Obama's sense of mission on health care was no different than the sense of mission that animated President George W. Bush, who promised "We write not footnotes but chapters in the American story." In that case, Bush's personal push to achieve big things like education reform and restructuring Social Security was considered a laudable attribute.
The only people who really know about whether a man running for president has the temperament for the job are those who have worked alongside him. This requires him to have had enough experience to actually accumulate tests of his temperament and to have people who aren’t just cronies make claims on his behalf, as was largely the case with Obama. (Kennedy also skipped to the top fairly quickly, but his military career was a pretty intense test of his temperament.)
This is one of the attractive qualities of the presidency, as it was first conceived by the Founders, where elites promoted candidates and the candidate didn’t sell themselves. The political class was in a position to have evaluated the temperament of a candidate like George Washington—someone they had closely observed over long careers. Mitt Romney, for example, has a well-earned reputation for the interchangeability of his public positions. But firsthand accounts of his character speak very well of him. Those who worked with him in the lead up to Winter Games in Salt Lake City testify not just to his focus and intelligent management, but his commitment to integrity and ethics.
Words like character and values get shapeless pretty fast. Like the word leadership, they are used by politicians to critique their opponent without having to explain exactly what they mean. But genuine examples of character in a candidate’s background give us some indication that he has ballast. Values, whether based in religious beliefs or personal ethics, are what stabilize a president in the swirl. His decisions are rooted in something larger than the moment. They keep him from foundering from pressure, whether from a near terrorist attack or the constant needling of a financial backer.
Though it would be helpful to have a better understanding of a candidate’s qualities from the elites who have observed him, no one would actually argue for going back to a selection system ruled only by party insiders. That is especially true now, when the elites that surround political figures are likely to be the people who raise money for them rather than men of national character like the Founders. George Washington and John Adams would have had nothing to do with Donald Trump.
Temperament, the most important quality, is the one we really can’t know. Voters are taking a gamble on what their presidents will do when they are alone. It’s a quality that can only be really measured once someone is in office. That would seem to favor incumbents, but proof that a president has the temperament to endure the challenges of the first four years is no guarantee that he could endure four more. The decision-making muscle may get in better shape, but it might also blow out after eight years of strain. For a challenger, experience and success are perhaps the only proxy for voters who want to know about a candidate’s temperament. If someone has been effective over a long career they must have some inner strength that allows them to make decisions, ride out disappointments, and endure uncertainty. This is essentially the Mitt Romney argument. (“You can’t argue with success.”) But voters aren’t buying that. How a candidate comes across on the stump, in television commercials, and in debates is what matters to voters. Though the office’s most important moments happen in private, we elect presidents based on who they are in public. In the end, voting for a president is like making decisions as a president. There’s no guarantee. The outcome is always uncertain, and there’s a 30 to 40 percent chance it won’t work out.