Temperament has played an important role in this year’s election. Whether you’ve been struck by Obama’s poise and apparent calm, or riled by McCain’s facial gymnastics, there has likely been a point at which a candidate’s temperament overrode what he was actually saying.
A recent article by Nancy Gibbs in Time magazine focused on presidential temperament, and the fact that candidates’ people skills and disposition can distract from poor decision-making skills. “We put so much emphasis on character because of Nixon. Until Bush came along, we’d forgotten how important judgment also is,” said former presidential advisor David Gergen.
What’s needed, argues Yale historian Beverly Gage, is “the right blend of confidence and humility.” The formula is simple, but elusive. What appears at first to be a candidate’s confidence can quickly spiral into erraticism when tested.
An editorial in the conservative publication Investors Business Daily quoted several senators who bore McCain’s verbal wrath, including one who dubbed the Arizona republican “hotheaded.”
Regarding McCain, American Conservative Union chairman David Keene said, “In his world, it’s very difficult to have a simple policy disagreement. Everything becomes personal.”
Salon.com published a similar article, which quoted Georgetown University political science professor Stephen Wayne, who is studying the personalities of McCain and Obama. Wayne expressed concern over McCain’s temper, and an emotion-driven, “less rational response” to crisis.
But Wayne’s perception of rationality is just that—perception. Psychologist and Kansas City Star columnist George Harris writes, “[E]veryone seems to disagree about the set of characteristics that compose personality.” Some psychologists use a mathematical approach, but the term “temperament” does not specifically factor into such theories. Instead, “emotional stability” and “impulsivity” are measured, according to Harris.
Regarding the Time magazine article, Harris feels that despite having “a fine discussion of presidential temperament,” the piece lacks any scientific basis, relying on anecdotes and TV footage. In which case, Harris wonders, “Are our impressions really reliable and accurate indicators of who the candidates really are?”
Only time will tell.