The President’s Personality: Reconsidered

New thoughts inspired by our current president

July 18, 2017

I subtitled this ‘Reconsidered’ because it was first written in September 2016. With a new president in office, I offer some additional thoughts prompted by what he has said and done.

Presidential biographers, as well as experts, who have advised more than one president have said that the president’s personality has an important effect on how he does his job. (I use the masculine pronoun, since we have not yet had a female president.) The public sees the president only in rehearsed settings in which he has been prepared, such as news conferences. We don’t get to see or hear the president in the most critical meetings he has with his staff, his advisers, his rivals, or with foreign dignitaries.

With this president, however, we have a new source: tweets. It seems that President Trump doesn’t clear his tweets with anyone, and political pundits say his tweets are not constrained by concerns of consistency with his previous tweets or established policies. While tweets are interesting, my expertise requires that I see and hear what the President says, not read it.

Accounts of our past presidents suggest that office has been held by people with very different personalities. Did that determine a president’s success? We don’t know, and for the type of scientific assessment of personality that I do requires measuring a president’s spontaneous behavior. Unfortunately, it is only his inner circle who sees that and apart from their bias in his favor, they are not expert in how to assess personality from demeanor. The best I can do, having never met any of our presidents or even a would-be president, is to describe what I suspect would be some of the personality characteristics that might be useful for a president to possess. The reader can use this list to evaluate President Trump. I will not do so, for I have had a long-standing guideline of not commenting publicly on anyone in office or running for office. The reason for this personal policy is because my expertise was gained at public expense (grants from federal agencies), and I don’t believe it proper to use that expertise for partisan purposes. Even if I did not feel so constrained, I could not evaluate a president’s personality because, again, I don’t get to see his spontaneous behavior.

Certainly one desirable characteristic is a lack of impulsiveness, or to put it more positively, toleration, if not comfort, with ambiguity. Jumping to conclusions before all relevant evidence is obtained would be a drawback. Wanting to know about a variety of choices, with the possible advantages and disadvantages of each, could serve a president well. Yes-men (or women) are to be avoided.

Tolerance for risk taking is another important personality characteristic for a president to possess. Should we want a president who is risk adverse, or one, who like a downhill skier, enjoys the thrills of taking risks? It is easy to say that a president should be somewhere in between, occupying a middle ground, but such ground isn’t always available. The decision about what to risk should depend on estimates of the possible gains if the risk succeeds and losses if it fails, but that can’t always be known. Sometimes it may depend on the president’s style or personality.

Presidential advisers walk on shaky ground. Failing to warn about risks will later be seen as a drawback, but such warnings can be interpreted as the result of a lack of conviction or personal strength. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy reportedly left the room so that his advisers could argue their viewpoints without worrying about how the President might judge them. During a crisis, the president needs advisors who feel free to argue for diverse alternatives.

We live in a world where there is not always, perhaps not even often, certainty about the consequences of whatever action is taken. It is a gamble, but to the extent possible, it should be a considered gamble, taken with knowledge of all the feasible choices available and some estimation of the odds. Is this what President Trump asks of his advisers? We don’t know, and won’t find out until some of them write their memoirs.

Transparency, the willingness to share with the public all that can be made known about the decision-making process, is desirable in a democracy which depends on informed voters. At a minimum, that transparency should include, at some point, acknowledgement of when transparency was judged not possible. Secretiveness, expecting betrayal and protecting against criticism by not being transparent, will over time breed public distrust. Such distrust undermines a leader and erodes the prospects of someone seeking leadership. Again, we will have to await the memoirs to find out if President Trump stressed this in working with his staff and advisers.

Taking the blame rather than blaming others is another characteristic desirable in a president. It may not be the president’s fault when things go wrong, but usually expressing regret for having failed to avert a bad outcome is better than not acknowledging it or blaming it on bad advice. No one expects perfection; admitting mistakes sometimes wins respect. A president will get better advice when the advisers know they will not be scapegoated if following their advice led to an unfortunate outcome.

Principled actions taken with explicit consideration of how it fits with the principles that our country’s founders embraced should be another requirement. The Constitution and the first ten Amendments provide the framework, as well as the many books about ways to interpret those documents, what they meant to the founders and how they should apply today. This requires that presidents know, accept and seek to act consistently with that heritage, not just the momentary advantages that might be available today. Even when the outcome is unwanted, the refusal to act expediently contrary to the founding principles of the country will help to ameliorate our evaluation of a choice that led to unwanted consequences.

I have described six characteristics we should hope are exemplified by those who seek or obtain this high office:

  • Not impulsive
  • Comfortable with ambiguity
  • Tolerates taking risks
  • Values transparency
  • Takes the blame for mistaken actions
  • Seeks to act consistently with our American heritage

How many of us could claim our decisions are guided by such principled characteristics?

I believe we should ask those who do seek this office to explicitly announce their intention to be so guided. It is a lot to ask, but we should elect only those who seek to stand on this very high ground.

Dr. Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 40 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you. To learn more, please visit: www.paulekman.com.

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