Barack Obama puzzles many of us. His performance as president has disappointed so dramatically that it prompts me to wonder what makes him tick.
The most widely used tool for understanding personality types is a questionnaire called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. So I bought a book called “Do What You Are,” by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, and read their explanation of the Myers-Briggs classifications to try to understand our president in the broad terms commonly used by professionals.
Most philosophers and psychologists have concluded that there are four basic types of human temperament, and over 2,500 years they’ve described them in surprisingly consistent ways. In modern lingo, according to Tieger and Barron-Tieger, these four categories are: traditionalists, experiencers, idealists and conceptualizers.
It looks to me as if our president is in the “idealist” category, which the authors describe as “on a perpetual search for the meaning of life ... often excellent communicators and can be thought of as catalysts for positive change. (Idealists) generate enthusiasm for their ideas and actions. At best, they are charismatic, receptive, and accepting. ... Sometimes they are too idealistic ... not particularly good at disciplining or criticizing others. They value harmony and do not flourish in a competitive or divisive arena.”
The Myers-Briggs model identifies four dimensions of individual personality: how we interact with the world, the kind of information we notice and rely upon, how we make decisions, and whether we live in a more structured or a more spontaneous style. It then organizes this in a matrix of 16 possible combinations. I tried to figure out which “set” described Obama, and decided he was probably an ENFJ. In the Myers-Briggs world, those letters stand for extraverted, intuitive, feeling and judging.
Here are some phrases applied to that ENFJ subgroup: people-lovers; live by their values; energetic and enthusiastic, responsible, conscientious, and persevering; even-tempered and tolerant; good at promoting harmony; good communicators, usually using their expressive gift verbally; conflict avoiders. ENFJs need to keep their eyes open, as well as their hearts.
By way of contrast, an ESTP (extraverted, sensing, thinking, perceiving) can get conflicting parties together, “and can be tough when the situation warrants.”
You don’t need Myers-Briggs to see that Obama is so detached, so unwilling to defend himself and his causes against partisan obstructionism or raw hatred, that he often appears not to know where the line between useful compromise and meaningless accommodation lies. He treats demagogic opponents in the tea party and in Congress with the forbearance a family elder might reserve for fractious relatives. To be courteous with domestic political enemies who boast that their overriding objective is to drive him from office rather than to pursue what is good for the nation risks substituting weakness for judgment, sliding from statesmanship to defensiveness. That is where Obama is today.
One decision of Obama’s last year clearly fell outside the ambit of this description: the mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden. In that case, Obama acted as if bin Laden were outside the pale of civilization, family or the rule of law, and his extraordinary attention to backup and protection for the Navy SEALs who undertook the mission was evident to all. For Obama, those SEALs were part of the American family he wanted to defend against external danger.
It’s one example, but it’s reassuring in terms of our president’s ability to shape and execute a thoughtful but firm foreign policy. What we need him to do now is recognize that the greatest threats to his values and our country are domestic. He needs to take the gloves off and use the presidential bully pulpit — plus his own eloquence — to lay out where we need to go domestically, and to turn the pitiless flame of ridicule and shame on the narrow-minded obstocrats who would try to stop us from getting there. Our president needs to reach down and come up with a little more ESTP to offset his ENFJ.
• Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.