The Much-Disputed Personality Types of the Presidential Candidates

Everyone's doing it--from Slate to Keirsey, journalists and type professionals are all weighing in on the personality types of John McCain and Barack Obama. The writers at Keirsey.com, including Dr. Keirsey himself, argue that personality type has exerted a powerful force in presidential elections over the history of our nation. He makes a case for the idea that Sensors have an advantage when communicating with their constituents because they tend to be more concrete and factual.

However, since few of our past Presidents have taken the indicator or verified their type (the exception being Bill Clinton, who verified as an ENFP) it's difficult to be sure what advantages personality preferences might confer. Indeed, a candidate's ability to adapt their persona to the situation at hand might be more important than any of their type preferences. Nonetheless, it's always interesting to theorize about the types of major figures, and it only becomes more fascinating when the subjects are opponents in a contentious and competitive political race.

The Slate article has gotten quite a bit of press, but unfortunately the author seems to have limited type expertise. Armed with a couple of books by Otto Kroeger, she set out to decide which type fit each candidate best. In later interviews, she avoided questions about her qualifications regarding the instrument, stating: "This is journalism—I know better than they do what type they are...." Anyone familiar with the concepts of type is aware that the final authority on someone's personality type is the person themselves. Other people can make observations and guesses, but without a thorough evaluation and discussion with the individual, we can never be sure of a person's type. For what it's worth, she guessed that McCain would prefer ESTP, and Obama ENFP.

I'm inclined to put a bit more stock in the Keirsey analysis. They didn't have the benefit of talking with the candidates either, but at least they're type professionals! The writers at Keirsey.com have theorized that John McCain is an STP Artisan, while Obama is likely a Rational, most probably an INTJ Mastermind. They've taken a look at both of the candidates' career histories, communication styles, and written work to try to observe characteristics of type preference.

McCain's sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, his reputation as a partier in his younger days, and his apparent tendency to respond to situations from moment to moment are all cited as evidence of an Artisan temperament. In the piece on Obama, the authors cite his innovative ideas and motivation to challenge the status quo, as well as his abstract communication style. Although they conclude he is likely a Rational, they observe that he has well-developed skills outside of his preferences: the ability to relate to others in a more typically Idealist style, as well as the ability to communicate concretely when the situation calls for it.

From my own observations of the candidates, I would guess that McCain is indeed an ESTP. ESTPs like to be in the center of the action, whether on a battlefield or in politics. They can get themselves in trouble with their impulsive nature, saying exactly what they think when they think it, and sometimes they stir up trouble just for the excitement of it. McCain's reputation as a maverick seems to stem from his ability to candidly point out flaws in process. He's not so interested in evaluating systems holistically or putting together nuanced policies; he just calls 'em as he sees 'em.

McCain communicates in a straightforward manner, but tends to hedge when asked about long-range plans. You get the sense that he prefers to have the freedom to address problems as they arise, rather than having a detailed plan about what will happen. This can also help to explain what some deride as "waffling;" people who prefer Perceiving will often make different decisions depending on the unique situation presented in the moment. Indeed, McCain often seems to state his positions as if they've just occurred to him. Unfortunately for McCain, candidates who don't seem to hold a hard line on an issue are often criticized in the press; for better or for worse, we seem to prize decisiveness and consistency in a leader over flexibility and spontaneity.

When studying Obama, I'm inclined to disagree with the Keirsey evaluation of his type. I do agree that Obama is likely an Intuitive, based on the way he communicates. He speaks in an imaginative, abstract style typical of Intuitive types. His engaging narrative has been noted by supporters and detractors alike; supporters find themselves moved by his positive vision, where detractors feel he is "all ideas and no substance." Either way, the style they are noticing is characteristic of an Intuitive preference and a tendency to communicate ideas, meaning, and possibilities, rather than facts and details.

I disagree with Keirsey on the T/F dichotomy. Obama strikes me as an Intuitive Feeling (Idealist) type rather than an NT. NF types are driven to visualize a world that is better for people; they are innovative in their thinking about how to improve the human condition and are driven fundamentally by their humanitarian principles. While NTs are motivated to innovate as well, they often are driven to improve systems in terms of efficiency or cost-effectiveness. If it makes more sense, NTs are in favor of it. In contrast, NFs are driven to improve systems in terms of how well they serve people. If it makes the world a better place, NFs are in favor of it. Obama's policies seem much more consistent with an NF point of view; he seems to espouse policies and positions on the basis of their ability to improve the human condition.

Overall, I would guess that Obama prefers ENFJ. His ability to communicate easily and compellingly is a trait found more often in Extroverted types than in Introverted types; ENFJs in particular are often considered silver-tongued. I would theorize a Judging preference from the way he handles policy ideas; he seems to project plans for implementation well into the future and tends to emphasize the importance of commitment to a goal. In general, ENFJs are the consummate community organizers, taking their positive vision for humanity and getting people together to make it happen. ENFJs are often found leading nonprofit organizations, practicing community-oriented law, or taking on public relations or communications positions that allow them to promote a positive message--all roles that Obama has held at some point in his career.

So, will it make a difference in the election? Keirsey has been commenting on the race throughout the primaries, and noted that both Obama and McCain were their party's best hope for winning the presidency: McCain because of the historic success of Artisan candidates, and Obama for his ability to communicate concretely, despite his presumed preferences. Having seen the impact that personality preferences make in most areas of life, I'm inclined to believe that they will affect the election. Of course, the candidate that appeals to us most based on personality characteristics may not be the candidate that best represents our interests. My hope is that with awareness of how our preferences may bias us, we'll be better able to vote for the candidate who truly represents our views and vision for our country.

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