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Predicting Presidential Performance

Profiling “President” Romney

by JOHN DEAN

During presidential election cycles, I inevitably find myself measuring candidates with tools developed by the late political scientist James David Barber in his seminal work The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance In The White House.  With the 2012 election looming, it is time to do so again.

It’s clear to me, if not to most everyone, that the Republicans are going to nominate former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as their 2012 standard-bearer. Neither Newt Gingrich, nor Ron Paul, nor Rick Santorum can win the GOP nomination. And if by some miracle, one of them did, he could never defeat Obama. (I say this even though I’m well aware that, at present, approximately 47 percent of the electorate is against reelecting Obama, as noted by PollingReport.com.)

Even if Romney is the candidate, moreover, President Obama’s reelection is highly likely—though, given the delicate state of the economy, it is far from a sure thing.  So I have been thinking lately about where Governor Romney falls under Professor Barber’s analytical system, which I will grossly simplify in order to explain its basics. Barber’s work does not predict who will win an election; rather, it addresses with surprising accuracy how a person will perform as president. And this information should, in turn, help voters make their decision.  For surely, we all want a president whose performance not just on the campaign trail, but also—and much more importantly—in office will be excellent.

Barber’s Cataloguing and Predictive Methodology

Professor Barber catalogues all presidents (up to Bush I), assigning each to one of four groupings he has devised.  His classification depends on two metrics he assigns the grouping (1) how actively or passively the president performs in his political role, and (2) whether the president enjoys or dislikes the activities that his role requires. When considering the two metrics, Barber draws from five common factors regarding each president: his character, his worldview, his style, his performance in power situations, and the climate of expectations surrounding him.  Barber then clusters and labels the presidents accordingly.

More specifically, Barber labels the aggressive presidents as either “active/positive” or “active/negative,” and the less aggressive and more laid-back chief executives as “passive/positive” or “passive/negative.” The positive or negative portion of Barber’s sorting is determined based on how the president feels toward the political process.  Those who enjoy politics are positively ranked, while those who find politics unpleasant are negatively tagged.

While any such simplistic typology has inherent weaknesses, Barber’s scheme has proven strikingly and surprisingly accurate for president after president, over the years.  For that reason I have continued to return to it for guidance.  Barber’s groups can be summarized as follows:

Active/Negative. These presidents are always potential problem presidents. Accordingly, we are still feeling the aftershocks, not to mention cleaning up the mess, of the last prototypical active/negative president: George W. Bush.  As I wrote in May, 2004, “Not since Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon has the nation been exposed to an active/negative presidency.” At that time I warned, based on Barber’s predictive projections, that what would likely follow under the Bush II presidency was “not something to look forward to.” Unfortunately, this was correct. Active/negative-type presidents typically take bold gambles, and given their dislike of the political process, they don’t analyze the downsides of their actions.

Active/Positive.  These presidents not only aggressively pursue their responsibilities, but also love the job of being the nation’s political leader.  Barber’s catalogue of active/positive presidents includes Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter. While Barber did not examine Bill Clinton’s presidency, Clinton too would surely fall within this group. In November 2008, I examined president-elect Barack Obama using Barber’s analytical approach and found Obama to be another prototypical active/positive president. And, indeed, as president, Obama has displayed a striking resemblance to his active/positive predecessors in this category.

Passive/Positive. These presidents are “receptive, compliant, other-directed” personalities “whose life is a search for affection as a reward for being agreeable and cooperative rather than personally assertive.” They have “superficially optimistic and hopeful attitudes that help dispel doubts and lift spirits.” They are able to “soften the harsh edge of politics.” Barber found that Presidents James Madison, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan fell in this group. They are presidents whom Americans loved, but at the end of the day, they had no great accomplishments.

Passive/Negative. This is something of an odd group, for one might ask why such a personality would become involved in politics when he doesn’t like enterprise, and does little when in office. Barber explains that “passive/negative types are in politics because they think they ought to be.” And once in the political spotlight, they are less than great leaders, because they tend to withdraw and avoid conflict.  Barber’s archetypal example of this type of president is George Washington, who took the job because he felt he should. Washington was not an innovator; rather he sought to create stability, and he had to be persuaded to stay for a second term, when, in truth, he would have preferred to retire to Mt. Vernon. Others whom Barber has placed among this group are Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

Mitt Romney:  Evidence That, If Elected, He Would Be A Classic Active/Negative President, Much Like George W. Bush

My knowledge of Governor Romney is based on news accounts and two recent biographies: The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, who are both Boston Globe reporters, and Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics by R.B. Scott, once a Utah-based journalist, and also a Mormon like Romney, who moved to Boston. The overwhelming evidence from these sources show that if elected, Romney would be an active/negative president.

To read the news accounts of the well-oiled Romney campaign operation provides conspicuous evidence of his aggressive political nature. The Romney campaign has vigorously sought to demolish his opponents in the early primaries, while at the same time laying a base to attack President Obama in a national campaign. It is an aggressive undertaking, based on years of planning, and robust fund-raising.

Biographers Kranish and Helman report that, as a businessman at Bain Capitol, Romney “followed a trusty formula: pursue data aggressively, analyze rigorously, test constantly, and observe always.”  He handled the Massachusetts governorship in a similarly aggressive fashion. But it is clear that Romney does not really like politics.  Indeed, it has been widely reported that the public political Romney is not truly the man himself.  Rather,  Romney hides his accomplishments as governor, his wealth, and his religion, as he almost robotically pursues the presidency.

For example, Kranish and Helman also report that when a young girl in New Hampshire asked Romney what he would tell her class to make them want to be politicians, he joked that he would not tell them anything or encourage them to enter politics.  But did this deadpanned response actually reveal his true feelings?  Kranish and Helman’s The Real Romney tells the story of Romney’s “uneasy relationship between conviction and vaulting ambition and how political dreams can die when tactics outrun beliefs.”  The Mitt Romney whom they portray does not enjoy political campaigning.

Biographer R. B. Scott, who has known and followed Romney for over twelve years, also reveals Romney’s active/negative approach to politics, which parallels his “straight-ahead approach to life.”  Scott notes of Romney, that: “1) he is a problem solver who rarely takes ‘no’ for an answer; 2) he acts pragmatically and preemptively; 3) he likes to be in control and can be very controlling; 4) he doesn’t read people well—in fact, he expects people … to say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say, and he expects people to listen that way, too; 5) he doesn’t anticipate blindside attacks and therefore is ill- prepared to deal with them; and 6) if he has ever made a mistake, he would rather keep it to himself, always quite sure that whatever it was, in most cases it was probably the result of a misunderstanding, someone not listening carefully or lacking the sense God gave a goose.”

Unlike, say, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, who each connect easily with people and enjoy the push and pull of politics, we are all watching Romney suffer the agony of the political process simply because enduring that process is necessary to reach his ambition.

To me, Romney is strikingly Nixonian in his public awkwardness, and distaste for politics, not to mention his accompanying political aggressiveness. (But Romney is far less knowledgeable about the ways of Washington and the world than was Nixon.)  To continue the comparison, I suspect Romney is, at heart, even more moderate than Nixon, who today is far to the left of center. (And I suspect, based on his work at Bain Capital, that Romney is every bit as ruthless a process politician as Nixon was.)

To be blunt, I do not believe that the country can handle another active/negative president—not at this time, anyway.  James David Barber’s analytical tool has proven to be too uncannily predictive to ignore.

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.

This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.