How Bush will govern

Editor’s note: This week, to coincide with the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Times columnist Aubrey Immelman reports his analysis with respect to George W. Bush. A similar report on Al Gore will appear next month in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention.

By Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
July 30, 2000

Public skepticism about “politics as usual” in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iran contra affair, and the Clinton impeachment saga has propelled personality to a position of prominence in the study of political leadership.

The erratic path of George W. Bush’s coming-of-age as a politician — “… when I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible” — raises legitimate questions concerning his character, judgment, and capacity to govern.

“Drawn by the entrepreneurial spirit of the energy business,” the 29-year-old Bush in 1975 followed in his father’s footsteps to the oil fields of West Texas, where he would — fueled by his gift of the gab, his talent for thriving on wits and ingenuity, and his daddy’s considerable connections — achieve modest success in forging an early career for himself in the risky oil exploration and development business.

It is here, in 1978, that Bush first forayed into politics, with a failed congressional bid for which he was ill-prepared.

Growing up

Throughout this time, Bush, by his own admission, was “drinking and carousing and fumbling around.” But the “so-called wild, exotic days” of his youth ended abruptly just after his 40th birthday in 1986, when Bush unceremoniously jumped on the wagon, reigned in his unruliness, and turned his life in a direction that would ultimately lead him to the pinnacle of power in politics.

Bush’s personality serves him well at a time of peace and prosperity in an era of “made-for-television” politics, during which civic values are increasingly shaped by entertainment industry standards and presidential election outcomes determined more by personality than by policy positions.

Like most popular presidents — most notably the two Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton — Bush is highly outgoing, socially skilled, charismatic, and adept at rallying political support.

In addition, Bush is distinctly dominant, with a dauntless, unruly streak that plays well with today’s more pragmatic, less ideological or party-bound electorate.

Of course, what plays well with voters does not automatically translate into presidential success. George W.’s own father pushed 90 percent in the polls on the crest of Gulf war exuberance before plummeting to a paltry 37 percent of the popular vote in his re-election bid less than two years later in the trough of an economic downturn.

But rather than negate the importance of personality in politics, this reality underscores the importance of considering a candidate’s personal characteristics.

Cracking the code

In his book, “The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates,” political scientist Stanley Renshon provides a useful tool for cracking the code of likely presidential performance. Renshon proposes that personal character shapes three critical components of competent executive leadership:

  • Mobilization — the ability to arouse, engage, and direct the public.
  • Orchestration — the organizational skill and ability to craft specific policies.
  • Consolidation — the skills and tasks required to preserve the supportive relationships necessary for a president to implement and institutionalize his policy judgments.

As president, Bush’s outgoing personality will be instrumental in rallying, energizing, and motivating others, and in concert with his political connections will stand him in good stead with respect to mobilization.

In the sphere of orchestration, Bush’s relative deficit of personality traits related to conscientiousness (for example, sustained focus and attention to detail), along with his extravert’s impulsiveness and susceptibility to boredom, may serve as an impediment to presidential performance.

Bush is no “policy wonk” — an attribute firmly embedded in his personality — though as governor he has proven himself adept at delegating the more mundane aspects and minutiae of the day-to-day operation of his office.

This particular leadership skill — rooted in Bush’s dominant personality attributes, including the drive to excel, goal-directedness, and proficiency in taking charge and seeing that the job gets done — will also aid Bush in the arena of consolidation, where it will potentially augment his outgoing, “retail” politician’s skills in consummating his policy objectives.

Concerning the general tenor of a Bush presidency, an outgoing, confident, dominant personality such as Bush can be expected to display what political psychologist Dean Keith Simonton calls a “charismatic” presidential style.

Simonton’s research suggests that leaders of this kind keep in close contact with the mood of the public, consciously refine their public image, and are skilled in retaining their popularity. They typically are artful manipulators who rarely permit themselves to be outflanked, use rhetoric effectively, and are skilled and self-confident negotiators.

Not ‘deliberative’

Bush, not being a highly conscientious personality type, is unlikely to exhibit what Simonton calls a “deliberative” leadership style. Thus, a President Bush may neglect to keep himself thoroughly informed, place political success over effective policy, fail to exhibit depth of comprehension or understand the broader implications of his decisions, and force decisions to be made prematurely.

Political scientist Lloyd Etheredge’s research on the links between personality and foreign policy orientation, conducted nearly 25 years ago, remains relevant today in foreshadowing a President Bush’s likely operating style and role preference in foreign affairs.

Bush’s personality profile matches the mold of Etheredge’s “high-dominance extravert.” Etheredge contends that high-dominance extraverts are quite flexible and pragmatic, favoring a broad spectrum of foreign policy initiatives and “initiating programs and institutions for worldwide leadership and cooperative advance on a range of issues.”

High-dominance extraverts are inclusive, seeking leadership rather than containment in the international arena.


Political psychologist Margaret Hermann’s model offers another glimpse into the nature of a prospective Bush presidency. Bush’s personality profile is compatible with Hermann’s description of the “mediator/integrator” foreign policy role orientation.

These leaders are motivated primarily by a concern with reconciling differences between nations and resolving international difficulties. They believe that conflict can be resolved through diplomacy and third-party mediation.

The rhetoric of these leaders “is generally positive in tone.” They use “consensus-building and group maintenance techniques effectively” and have a personal political style characterized by a “willingness to ‘take a back seat’ in the policy-making process, having an impact without seeming to control.”

In this light, Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney as his vice-presidential running mate has a compelling logic. The presence of the seasoned, battle-tested former congressman, White House chief of staff, and secretary of defense on the Bush ticket may reassure voters who question the navigational skills of a would-be president whose deficits as a commander-in-chief are concentrated in the realm of orchestration, the organizational skill and capacity to craft specific policies.

Aubrey Immelman is a political psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. You may write to him in care of the St. Cloud Times, P.O. Box 768, St. Cloud, MN 56302.