Charisma, Confidence Boosts Obama

Charisma, Confidence Boosts Obama

Denise Jittan and Aubrey Immelman
January 4, 2008

Even before Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses Thursday, the campaign rhetoric from the Clinton camp had become increasingly heated. To elect Obama would be “to ‘roll the dice’ for America,” warned former president Bill Clinton (“Obama showing new confidence with Iowa sprint,” New York Times, Dec. 16, 2007).

Voters can take President Clinton’s word that electing Obama would be a roll of the dice, or they may ponder the issue in more objective fashion. Beyond ideology, party-political platform, political track record, and declared policy positions and preferences, a candidate’s character or personality — deeply ingrained psychological characteristics expressed in almost every facet of life — offers valuable insights into a candidate’s likely leadership style.


Using a standard assessment procedure developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, we generated a personality profile for Sen. Obama. The profile reveals that Obama’s most prominent personal attributes are confidence, assertiveness, and congeniality.

In office, the behavior of confident, ambitious leaders like Obama is characteristically shaped by four core qualities: power, pragmatism, ideology, and self-validation. As persons with a strong belief in their talents and leadership ability, power is an important driver for their leadership behavior and they favor pragmatism as a way of ensuring their own success. Because of extraordinary confidence in their own ideas and potential for success, they are strongly motivated by ideology and a desire to transform society. Finally, their high-self-esteem stimulates a corresponding need for affirmation, resulting in a quest for personal validation.

Ambitious, goal directed

Ambitious, confident leaders like Obama are more goal- than process oriented. This implies that their own advancement and success is more important to them than compromise or maintaining good relations with colleagues.

By the same token, they also are more likely to act as advocates for their own policy vision than as consensus builders or arbitrators. However, because of their pragmatic nature, they will act in a cooperative or harmonious manner when they see it as furthering their self-interest.


Obama’s combination of confidence, assertiveness, and congeniality fits the profile of a charismatic leader; he is ambitious, dominant, and outgoing, which enables him to advance a personal vision, inspire followers, and connect with people.

The outgoing pattern in Obama’s personality profile, a quality he shares with presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. John McCain — yet notably absent in Sen. Clinton — may be key to his meteoric rise to prominence and electoral success thus far in the 2008 election cycle. Ironically, in view of President Clinton’s “roll the dice” comment noted above, Obama shares more of Bill Clinton’s charismatic personality traits than any of the top-tier candidates in either party.

He will be a tough candidate to beat. In fact, Obama’s greatest obstacle may not be whether he has the right personal qualities or the requisite experience to lead, but the readiness of America to elect an African-American to the highest office in the nation.

Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the “Your Turn” column “Obama fits a charismatic profile” in the St. Cloud Times (p. 4B), Jan. 8, 2008.