Sunday, January 04, 2015

Predicting Presidents for 2016: Ere It Begins

My personal blogging challenge for the year of 2015 is to cope with the pending headaches of 2016 by attempting to predict each potential political candidate's Presidential Character.

This will follow the system established by James David Barber, who used a basic four-grid chart using two baselines: the energy invested in the Presidency (Active-Passive), and the personal perception placed/will place on the role of being President (Positive-Negative).  This gives us Active-Positive, Active-Negative, Passive-Positive, and Passive-Negative.

The terms used can be confusing because there are multiple meanings to each word.  People get confused about the word "Active" for example, thinking that can apply to Presidents who on a personal level bounce off the walls like hyperactive children.  The word "Active" here applies to how much energy that President puts towards being President: does he go to the job with confidence and vigor and conviction, does he view every policy fight as a good reason to wake up in the morning?  George W. Bush is a good example of the confusion: in personal habits he was very active and engaged with others, but when it came to the Presidency he was decidedly disconnected and more reactive to situations than active, which puts him in the Passive category.

Positive and Negatives might lead to confusion as well.  "Positive" here is the mindset that being President is a good thing, that the powers of the Executive office can be effectively used, that the role of the Presidency is flexible enough to do anything necessary to achieve goals that benefits others (Barber calls it the "I Can" mentality).  "Negative" is the mindset that the Presidency is dangerous (even in your own hands), that there are limits to the office and that things should be done in a procedural manner, that the President cannot or will not derive any satisfaction from the performance (Which falls under "I Must" mentality).

Using these definitions, Barber wrote his first book on Presidential Character in 1972 about then-President Richard Nixon who was about to embark on his re-election campaign.  Barber warned that Nixon showed signs of being a self-destructive Active-Negative type, akin to his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson and to Woodrow Wilson.  Barber noted that Nixon's desire to face crises - even those self-created - would lead to an obsessive fight over a failed agenda that would collapse Nixon's entire administration.

That book was published and in the stores about two weeks before the Watergate break-in was found out.  It cemented Barber's reputation and his four-grid chart.  For the most part since then Barber's predictions about subsequent Presidents - except for Carter who was more Active-Negative, and for Clinton who was Active-Positive (but who did lean towards the Passive-Positive traits on a personal level) - bore true.  (It should be noted that the traits are not absolutes: even Negatives may show Positive leanings, and Passives may be remarkably Active and influential in the Executive office).

So before I go delving into the early list of 2016 candidates - a wave of Republican hopefuls just beginning with Jeb Bush and now Mike Huckabee, sure to be followed by 25-80 more - I need to clarify just what it is we'll need as voters to look at when evaluating the clowns jumping out of the election car.

Above all, the biographies of each candidate needs to be parsed and investigated.  Barber relied on the prime developing years of each President's youth, college years, early professions, marital pursuits.

In terms of professions, Barber examined the private professions as much as the public offices held, campaigns lost or won, and in each office he identified a key crisis or decision that either influenced further actions or confirmed the traits developed in the man's youth.

From such studies, Barber looked for these elements (from his book's first chapter):

  • Personality: in Barber's view it "shapes performance".  "...the degree and quality of a President's emotional involvement in an issue are powerful influences on how he defines the issue itself, how much attention he pays to it, which facts and persons he sees as relevant to its resolution, and finally what principles and and purposes he associates with the issue." (4th edition, p.4)
  • Pattern: the Personality follows certain patterns based on Character, World View, and Style.  Style (not charisma: nearly every President had his charms) is the easiest to spot: it's his habitual way of offering rhetoric, handling personal relations, and doing homework. (p.5)  The World View is another phrase to describe the person's primary belief structure and how he/she interprets the reality around him/her.  Character is based on what experiences have been "engraved" onto the person by outside persons/forces: it's how you confront conflicts (and Character is What You Are In The Dark).
  • Power Situation: That is, the moral and political climate into which the person becomes President.  What are the expectations of the office by the President as well as everyone else: voters, Congressional leaders, foreign powers?  The expectations of the office have changed much since Washington's heyday, and have changed even further after major economic (Great Depression) and political (Watergate and the ongoing scandal climate) and social (Slavery/Civil War/Reconstruction/Jim Crow/Civil Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights, etc) events that altered everything.  When we elect someone, we are expecting the elected official - the President - to perform his duties to resolve the crises and conflicts at hand.  Those expectations influence - either by confirming or denying - the President's pre-existing Character and World View.

So what this means for me is three-fold:

  • I gotta find published biographies of each of the candidate I'll be looking to profile.  Some will be easy to find, others not so.  And autobiographies will be ignored whenever possible, as those are too self-serving (tigers cannot see their own stripes: Republicans cannot admit to their own flaws...).
  • I need to identify any major crisis or conflict in each candidate's track history.  For Jeb it's relatively easy: his governor's performance is a matter of public record.  For the "private" citizens who've never held public office, their private sector performances would have to do, which is trickier to apply to public needs.
  • I need to get this all done in a timely fashion.  There's only 50 weeks now until 2016 itself rolls up and there's going to be about, what, 80 of these guys to review? 

As a side note, why should we expect about 80 or so Republican hopefuls running for 2016?  Because Obama.  Obama is finishing up his second term, capped off by the 22nd Amendment, meaning he won't be able to use his national popularity - it's gone up, by the by - to remain in office.

Making 2016 more enticing is the (flawed) cyclical trend of voters generally bouncing from one party to another even after a popular President leaves office: the thinking is that after 8 years of a Democrat in the White House, middling voters will allow a Republican back in.  Never mind the actual history where popular two-termers had a follow-up from his party win again.  SEE Bush the Elder following Reagan, Truman following FDR, Van Buren following Jackson, Taft following Teddy.  And it should include Nixon following Ike if not for Cook County ballots and Gore following Clinton if not for that damned butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county.  The notable exceptions are of course the unpopular two-termers Bush the Lesser and Nixon (whose unpopularity stained Ford's chances in 1976): in that vein, we'd have had Tilden a Democrat after the disaster that was Grant's administration if not for a broken Electoral college that allowed the corrupt Republicans in Congress to shove Hayes into office.  You'd be surprised how few two-termers there have been...

As for my homework assignment, Jeb Bush is the obvious lead-off.  He's local, he's made his moves, he's got easy-to-find resources within my reach for study.  Granted, I already have a bias against the man - mostly for logical performance-based disasters he inflicted on my state, but also for one very personal and admittedly irrational reason - but I will try to be fair.

Happy New Year!

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