To Pick a President 3 - Temperament

The personality our President needs.

Nobody wants a stupid President.  The leftist media likes to deride conservative politicians as morons so people won't vote for them.  They claimed that Reagan was "an amiable dunce"; Dan Quayle was castigated for misspelling "potato"; George W Bush was lambasted as an idiot even though, in actual fact, his college grades were better than John Kerry's.

Unfortunately, brilliance is no panacea.  Richard Nixon is considered to be one of our smartest leaders and we all know how that ended up.

Clearly, traits other than raw brains contribute to the greatness of a President.  We've already explored the experience our President should have and should not have; in this article, we discuss personality and temperament.

Why does temperament matter?  It is said that when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes met Franklin D. Roosevelt, he remarked that the new President had a ”second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”  Roosevelt's temperament proved very useful to him as he led American through some trying times, and to more than a few places they didn't really want to go.

Ronald Reagan could have been described similarly: his likability and geniality helped the American people believe that he really cared about them and had their best interests in mind, even at times when things might have seemed a bit doubtful.

On the other hand, you have Mr. Obama, whose air of detached superiority has his most earnest supporters feeling a little chilly.  Worse, you have Mr. Nixon, who always seemed like he was trying to pull something tricky on you regardless of whether he actually was.

So what sort of personal attributes and traits serve a President, and the country, well?

Intellectual Curiosity

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: this does not mean we want a President who "grows in office" and cheerfully comes to agreement with statists on the other side of the aisle.  We do not need a leader who is constantly questioning the reality of his own supposed beliefs.  It's OK to disagree with opponents - in fact, it's an absolute requirement given the cliff our current administration is driving us off of.

Instead of vilifying them, however, a good leader must try to understand what drives his opponents and what they actually want instead of hiding behind convenient strawmen - false representations of opponents.  One of Mr. Obama's very worst traits is his love of strawmen, from claiming Republicans wanted to do "nothing" about the economic collapse in 2008 (would that they had!  We'd've been better off!) to allowing his supporters to tar any and all opposition with the racism brush.  This is a ludicrous copout, but more to the point, it avoids the real issues of disagreement and debate.

What a contrast with Democratic presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, who clearly understood the difference between their evil and murderous international opponents (Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, respectively) and the opposing views but general patriotism of domestic Republicans.  Real leaders are intensely curious.  They seek out reality wherever it may be found and spare no effort try to understand both the world and other people as they actually are, both for good and for ill.

There can be too much of a good thing, alas.  Jimmy Carter was famous for agonizing late into the night on the petty details of trifling bills and regulations before him.  It's not the job of the president to be so curious he can't come to a decision.

It's also essential for a president to be sufficiently confident in his own beliefs and his own nation that he isn't plagued by self-doubt.  Reagan was always willing to discuss the best path towards achieving America's goals in the world, but about the merits of the goal itself - the defeat of Communist dictatorship and the triumph of freedom - he would brook no questions, even when the entire commentariat thought him a nutty old fool.  Who looked the fool when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989?  Not Mr. Reagan.

As a general rule, we want a president with a desire to be always learning.  When Sarah Palin's infamous interview with Katie Couric appeared to reveal her as someone who doesn't read, America was horrified and considered Palin disqualified; the later revelation that the interview was edited to make Palin look bad accomplished little in the way of repair.  When Michelle Bachmann named Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises as her preferred beach read - now, that's more like it!


One of the many reasons America is so disgusted with its current leaders is that they act as if they believe in nothing beyond their own pursuit of power.  As leftist as Mr. Obama's administration is, the further-left is still furious that he didn't go for a full-on single-payer national health care system, given that the Republicans and the voters could hardly have hated that any more than the bill he actually passed.  If we're in a war on terror, the right asked of warmonger Bush, why haven't we invaded Iran which is the number one state sponsor of Islamic terrorism and has been for many years?

The great presidents of the past didn't have this problem.  Everybody knew what Abraham Lincoln believed in: "The Union, one and inseparable."  Franklin Roosevelt believed, wrongly, but devoutly, in the power of government spending to fix all economic ills.  Fortunately, World War II turned out to be the ideal nail for his favorite hammer - massive government spending really did fix that particular ill.  The medicine that failed Dr. New Deal was perfect for Dr. Win-the-War.

Compare Jimmy Carter.  What did he believe in?  On the one hand, he naturally had a desire for America to be safe.  On the other hand, well, those Iranian mullahs had some legitimate complaints against the Shah.  If Mr. Rogers can wear a sweater, why can't we all?  By the end of his term, nobody had any clue what Mr. Carter would do next except that he would inevitably screw things up even worse than they already were.

Principle may be a burden in lower office, but it actually helps win presidential campaigns.  Great losers of past election cycles had no coherent belief driving their campaign.  When Bob Dole, the ultimate snoozer, was handed a gift-wrapped opportunity to explain what the result of his election would be, the best he could come up with was "Think I'll win.  Could be big."  Bill Clinton romped to a landslide victory; if the candidate has no idea why it matters if you vote for him, why should you?

If you doubt that strong principle is a powerful political weapon, you have only to look at Ron Paul.  He offers nothing but principle, and yet that has buried him deep in a pile of money surrounded by screaming fans.  Principle alone won't give you the White House but it sure does help.

What's the opposite?  Every politician has to change his mind as reality changes over the course of a lifetime, but the more profound the change the better the explanation needs to be.  John Kerry was famously derided as a flip-flopper, not for one single change, but a host of them.  On the very most fiery issues, such as abortion, you get maybe one change per lifetime if that; any more, and nobody will trust you ever again.  America likes to know what it's getting when it picks a president; we resent buying a pig in a poke.

Caring about Average People

It would be all too humanly easy for the Most Powerful Man On Earth to become accustomed to the imperial trappings of his exalted status.  Mr. Obama's constant golfing, mile-long convoys and million-dollar Big Black Canadian Bus send a message Americans don't like.

What we want to see is a solid anchor in the President's believing in the importance of everyday people. When Bill Clinton said "I feel your pain" in rebuking a suffering and angry heckler, we all believed that he really did, and the heckler came off the loser.  Mr. Clinton may actually have cared; he definitely had a way of making people feel that he did.

George W Bush didn't have the same level of visibly emotive empathy as Mr. Clinton, but all American knew that he cared deeply about our wounded soldiers and serving military.  Cindy Sheehan's assaults never resonated much beyond the fever swamps of the left because most Americans knew that, for all his mistakes, depicting Mr. Bush as a bloodthirsty monster was absurd.

Does anybody believe that Mr. Obama truly cares about anybody?  It doesn't look like it; even his fellow blacks are beginning to wonder.  Richard Nixon had the same problem, and his famous speech about his children's dog Checkers only helped for a little while.

If you don't care, you're a machine.  Nobody wants to be led by an unfeeling machine.  As President, you make decisions that destroy or end the lives of real people; voters won't tolerate someone who, they feel, is able to make such decisions flippantly.

We want to see our President agonize over the cost of his decisions as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did; that way we know he'll make better ones over time.

Be A Real American

The Constitution is crystal clear that the president is to be a "natural born Citizen," but that's not what we're getting at.  Being American has little to do with your place of birth; what matters is what's in your heart.

Does the candidate believe America is the "last, best hope for the world"?  If so, why?  Is America unique, and if so, in what way?  Should America stay unique, or should we become more like other nations?

Why does half of the rest of the world want to come here, anyway?  Because we've stolen their stuff and they rightfully want it back?  Or because America is a beacon of liberty and freedom offering safety and success to anyone willing to work hard and follow the rules?

Reagan saw America as a shining city on a hill; in fact, until recently, all American presidents pictured America that way if not always so eloquently.  John Adams described our Constitution in religious terms:

The people in America have now the best opportunity, and the greatest trust, in their hands, that Providence ever committed to so small a number, since the transgression of the first pair: if they betray their trust, their guilt will merit even greater punishment than other nations have suffered, and the indignation of heaven.

An individual who can say, as did Barack Obama, that "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," has described himself as an alien who's far apart from three hundred years of American history and tradition.

There are immigrants from every nation who know that America is unique - that's why they risked their lives to come here.  America deserves nothing less in the White House.  How can you lead a people if you don't even think there's anything special about them?

Speaking of leadership brings us to the subject of the attributes of leadership that are essential in a President, which is the topic of the next article.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

Good all around except for one - Intellectual Curiosity. That is the defining characteristic of a Career Academic which you correctly demoted in the previous article.

Good leadership is being able to make decisions *even when you know* you don't have all the information. And being fine with that.

Presidents and CEOs should surround themselves with people who are intellectually curious but they themselves should not be. They should be able to take the available information, given to them by those people, and move forward without hesitation.

Intellectual Curiosity and Principled (your second bullet) are in some way opposites. I'm not saying that principled people can't be intellectual, but at some point principled people have to stop, determine what they believe and live that way without worrying about what may be wrong with the info they've based it on. Reevaluation is important from time to time, but the Intellectually Curious tend to never stop long enough to decide what they're going to be principled about.

Put it this way... Who would you define as more intellectually curious: Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich? Newt, without question. Now, which of those two would you say is a more dependable, rock-solid leader?

August 26, 2011 10:04 AM

lfon: I disagree. For instance, wanting to know how things work is intellectual curiosity. Learning about the political systems other countries is intellectual curiosity: as president it helps to know how and why they think and act the way they do. You're in a better position to trade and negotiate and conduct international business.

You can be principled and wrong, too. For instance, holding strong to communist (or socialist, if you prefer a "lighter" version) principles is just wrong - but Dennis Kucinich holds strong to them.

A lack of principles stems not from intellectual curiosity, but from a lack of personal self control. Obama seems to be principled (but wrong) in his insistence on leftist policies. Those are his principles.

His wife is not principled - she doesn't see that spending taxpayer money for her vacations is just wrong. She's just greedy. If someone else is paying, then why not take the vacations, spend the money?

Academia is interesting in that it's supposed to support intellectual curiosity but has evolved to encourage groupthink. This is because of the incentives that have been created over time. If climate scientists were truly intellectually curious we would never be worried about anthroprogenic climate change. Unprincipled people have done all sorts of things to promote a world view to their personal benefit.

True intellectual curiosity will lead towards finding true principles.

August 26, 2011 3:34 PM

I am finding this a fascinating series but it appears to put the onus back on to the American people to pick a President. This is the 21st century where image prevails over everything and the current incumbent proves my point. Style defeats substance every time because the media grovel and no one dare challenge a popular hero; not what I'm arguing that president Obama is a popular hero now. It's the ossified party machines that throw up candidates and then image makers and spin doctors get to work and then the press and media are well and truly in on the act. In an earlier article, you pointed to JFK as a bad president because he led the US to the brink of war. Taken over the longer historical period of the Cold War, this is undeniably true and came about because of inexperience. For all his faults, it would've been hard to see Nixon make the same mistake. But JFK and the allies faced down the Soviets and believe me when you're as close to the front line is I was, it was more than scary.

To be a US president requires many abilities and you have mentioned quite a few so far but as an allied observer, I would say you need a president with a global view of politics; ready to listen to the best advice possible (and if we accept the assumption that more expertise lies outside of the Oval Office than inside it's necessary); one who is proud to be American; one who is not afraid to lead and yet avoid the traps of being a quasi-dictator. In many respects, the past 3 years or so have set back the cause of black Americans and quite possibly women because the electorate will be looking for something familiar - the safe hands of a backstop. And I think the greatest requirement is to care for average people irrespective of wealth and status. This is almost impossible in today's culture.

Regrettably I have concluded that what you need is a war president. One who is prepared to name the enemy and take the fight to him rather than face them in the streets in cities of the US. Developments in Europe and the UK irrespective of their origins become mirrored in US society, which is a strange reversal, because usually the trend is to follow America.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun but I hope when the two great parties (and I'm not dismissing the Tea Party) commence the selection process, they do everything in their power to ensure that the candidate is legitimate i.e. there is no question about his birth; palpably honest and prepared to govern America looking to the future rather than dwelling on past failures and hatreds. It's a pious hope that the next election could be critical in the future of the US and if that is the case, the world.

August 27, 2011 5:14 AM

Christopher J. Ward:

Your comment was lucid, introspective, and void of conspiracies. It was refreshing to have a comment like yours.

August 27, 2011 1:05 PM

Yea, those scary 'conspiracy theories' that give you nightmares aye Bassboat?

August 27, 2011 6:27 PM

No, the nutty conspiracy theories that give sane folks a headache.

August 27, 2011 7:22 PM

Heh, yeah really. "Scared" ain't the problem. "Headache" hits the nail on the head.

August 27, 2011 7:27 PM

No nightmares, just more evidence to identify the insane.

August 27, 2011 8:01 PM


You misunderstood my point. I'm not demonizing intellectual curiosity. I myself am a very intellectually curious person - at least more so than average.

The POTUS is a very VERY unique position.

There are vastly more things for him to be dealing with than he has time to actually do.

99% of the time, when information arrives on his desk it's time to make a decision right then and there. There isn't time for him to get intellectually curious about it. He has to review the information his advisers and Dept. heads have given him and *make the decision*. Putting it off a day or two makes his subordinates lose confidence and, as we see with Obama, makes the American people lose confidence.

Remember what the President mostly decides - executive/military matters. In modern times, we've forgotten what exactly is the President's job. His job isn't to run Congress or to make budgets or to decide who gets what entitlements. All of that is a corruption of thought promulgated by the MSM, education system and politicians themselves who want to redefine who has what power.

Every morning the President receives the National Security Briefing. He has to read it and make decisions on directives happening *that day*.

When controversial attacks needs to happen, he's asked for the green light by the field commanders. His policy advisers discuss the fall-out from different angles. But he has to *make the decision there and then*.

I'm not suggesting that the President can't be an intellectually curious person by nature, but he must resist the urge to be intellectually curious WHILE he is President at all cost.

Instead, he should spend a great deal of time, thought and prayer on hiring the best, most experience, most trustworthy advisers he can find. His Dept. heads should be the best available. His legal team and White House staff should be creative, principled, steeped in experience, well read, and students of history.

This is one of the biggest problems Obama has. Have you ever considered that maybe he's so indecisive and wish-washy because he has terrible advisers?

Remember, the first year he was in office all the bad staff selections he made?

He had a full-blown Communist running "green jobs".

His top economic adviser said that she was "inspired" by Mao.

The only businessmen that he took counsel from were union bosses (who aren't businessmen at all) and the CEO of mega-corporations like Jeff Immelt (who doesn't have a clue how real business works).

Being intellectually curious is an overwhelmingly negative trait for a President to have unless he can resist the urge and force himself to delegate instead. When you start to think that's wrong, remember what his actual job is. The President isn't supposed to be writing or debating healthcare laws. He's supposed to be running the military, securing the borders and investigating/prosecuting federal-level crime. Other than that, he's nothing but a cheerleader. That takes a leaders, not a thinker.

August 28, 2011 9:28 AM


You are correct on what the president should do. It is the meddlesome kind, i.e. Carter, that had to micromanage everything. obama is no different, only worse. As for your observation, "Remember, the first year he was in office all the bad staff selections he made?". Well it is my observation that that staff was nothing more than a reflection of obama himself. He promised us that he would fundamentally change America. He is trying as hard as he can and those appointees were just part of that plan. We can only hope that he is ousted from office along with everyone who voted with him as they are to blame perhaps more so than he because he told us what he would do, they hide in the shadows and use our money for their re-election to office. 1-20-2013

August 28, 2011 11:36 AM

lfon: Your comment clarified your point well... but they're still not contradictory. I'll give a simple example: Boy Scouts.

Boy Scouts are to be intellectually curious. That's what all the merit badges are about. Learning new things. But they're also taught principles, they practice what to do in emergencies and are prepared. Well prepared scouts have been able to save lives because they could, in a snap, make a quick decision and act on it.

An intellectually curious president will always be learning, but not for the "here and now" but for the situations and circumstances of the future. Being so prepared and principled, he'll know what decision to make when it needs to be made.

I don't want a president who stops learning in office. But, like a Scout, when it's time to administer first aid it's too late to learn first aid...

August 28, 2011 7:39 PM
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