One of the most famous books published on the American presidency is “Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House” (Prentice-Hall, 1972) by Professor James Barber. In this book, Barber identified two different scales or “yardsticks” by which a president (or any executive) may be analyzed and understood.
The first is active-passive. How much energy does the president invest in his job? The “active” president is a workaholic who is up early and works late, reads several newspapers every day, reads and studies policy papers, spends much time on the telephone and rejects one-page executive summaries. The “passive” is relaxed, delegates more to his staff, prefers one-page summaries and is more likely to take time off.
The second is positive-negative. This deals with the satisfactions and rewards the president gets from being president. Does he enjoy being president? Does he look forward to getting up in the morning and going to the Oval Office? Does he relish the routine and mundane chores of the job? How does he cope with the criticism he invariably receives? Does he have the stamina needed to cope with the fact that, on any given day, he may have to make a life-and-death decision that will affect millions of people? Or when the latest Gallup poll shows his approval rating has fallen another five points? Or when the editorial cartoon in the New York Times likens him to Godzilla? In short, is he happy or miserable? Does he look forward to or dread the end of his term?
Barber’s two dimensions give us four different categories into which we may place our presidents: (1) active-positive; (2) active-negative; (3) passive-positive; and (4) passive-negative. Active presidents want results, something to show for their work. If they succeed, they will be positive; if not, negative. A classic example of an active-negative president is Woodrow Wilson. The only president with a Ph.D., and that in political science, he not only was Commander-in-Chief but Professor-in-Chief as well. He gave orders, subordinates in Congress and elsewhere listened and did as they were told, and Wilson was happy because things were going well.
But World War I came along and Wilson’s party lost the 1918 mid-term elections. It was all downhill from there, Wilson’s health failed, the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, and he died a broken man. Other active-negative examples are Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and Carter, hard-working men with many accomplishments but, in the end, their presidencies collapsed and they left office in disgrace. This type Barber believes is most likely to fail.
The two Roosevelts are the clearest examples of active-positive presidents and the most likely to succeed. FDR loved being president so much he broke the two-term tradition and stayed in office until he died. TR loved preaching from the bully pulpit and did not draw a happy breath after he left office. It is tempting to think this is the ideal type, but we should pause before we do. Lincoln certainly was active and committed to the causes of saving the union and abolishing slavery, but he was thoroughly miserable at the same time due to military setbacks during the first three years of the Civil War, the death of two sons and his wife’s progressive insanity. It is unlikely he would have lived to the end of his second term had he not been assassinated.
When we think of passive-negatives, we see failures Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge. Barber, however, classifies Washington exactly as this type, a steady plodder who saw the presidency as the call of duty and looked forward to returning to Mount Vernon. Eisenhower would be another.
Most Americans agree that our three greatest presidents were Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. They may disagree about the order, but not about the group. If Barber says Washington was passive-negative and FDR active-positive, he is unclear on Lincoln but I have made him active-negative, the same as failures Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon and Carter. Eisenhower would be passive-negative and Reagan passive-positive but both are often seen as near-great. Thus, Barber’s scheme describes presidential style or “modus operandi” but does not necessarily predict success. Other important variables are in play.