January 2, 2011
Obama's Bucket and Other Social Science Insights into His PresidencyBy Jay Partin
Barack Obama, like all of us, is a product of his own experience. His multi-racial birth, early childhood development, formal education and professional experience form the milieu from which he has evolved and constitute the attributes he brings to the Presidency. The knowledge, beliefs and abilities he acquired will shape his performance as President, affect what he intends to achieve and frame the attributes and competencies he brings to office.
Given his life path, what learning might one reasonably expect him to have assimilated and how might this affect his perceptions of reality, form his beliefs and cultivate his abilities? What assumptions can be made as to his real inner constellation of thought processes and the formative experiences that may have made them so? The answers to these questions can best be understood by examining the path he traveled to get where he is today and the generally accepted beliefs espoused along the way
Course to the White House
Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4 [corrected], 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He later moved to Jakarta, Indonesia with his mother and step father where he lived from age 6 to 10. Returning to Honolulu in 1971, he lived with his grandparents while attending private school from fifth to twelfth grade, graduating in 1979. From 1979 to 1981 he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, before transferring to New York's Columbia University, where he graduated with a degree in political science in 1981. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago and served as Director of Development Communities Project (DCP) from June 1985 to May 1988. In the Fall of 1988 he entered Harvard Law School, later serving as Editor of the Harvard Law Review, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1991. Returning to Chicago, he practiced as a civil rights attorney and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 1994. He served three terms as an Illinois State Senator from 1997 to 2004 before being elected as United States Senator from Illinois in November 2004. He gave a keynote address in the 2004 Democratic Convention which facilitated his subsequent Presidential quest that resulted in his election in November 2008. Since January 2009, he has served as 44th President of the United States.
In his nearly 49 years of life, his nuclear family unit and influences have primarily consisted of his mother, his stepfather and his grand parents. He has lived in Honolulu, Jakarta, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC for an average of 7 years each with approximately 18 of those years spent in Chicago and Washington. He has directly or indirectly been associated with the life and teachings of Frank Marshall Davis (socialist), Saul Alinsky (community organizer and writer), Reverend Jeremiah Wright (Black Liberation Theology), and William Ayers (activist and educator).
The manifestation of these formative impressions and associations are expressed in his writings:
The latter work provided a framework for the platform he used in his 2008 Presidential Campaign. Collectively, these writings portray a liberal, left of center political orientation that some consider to contain the seeds of socialism. This has been evidenced by his voting record in the US Senate where he has been rated the most liberal voting Senator.
His choice of work, professional endeavors and political activism provide another insight into the mind of the man. Upon graduation from Harvard Law School, he decided to return to Chicago and work as a civil rights lawyer and community organizer. While at the Miner Barnhill & Gallard law firm, "he wrote lots of substantial memos but didn't try any cases", according to John Miner, Obama's boss. However, he appeared in Cook County Court in 1994 on behalf of Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corp. to defend them against the City of Chicago. In 1994, he played a major role in arguing a case before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a securities trader who was improperly fired. He won that case. In 1995 he helped with a case to force the State of Illinois to enforce the 1993 Motor Voter Law. He won that case too.
From 1992 to 2004, while still with the law firm and also an Illinois State Senator, he taught three courses at the University of Chicago Law School. The courses were on Due Process and Equal Protection, Voting Rights and Racism and the Law. He reference texts included Brown vs. Board of Education, essays by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In 2001, while in the Illinois Senate, he co-authored a law to create a tax credit for people.
This record of his early family life, multiple cultural living environments, elite education experience, exposure to liberal and progressive thought leaders, and work experiences provide a profile of Barack Obama that can be summarized as follows:
Thus, we have portrayed one mosaic that describes the attributes of Barack Obama, the man, how he came to be the way he is and why he behaves the way he does. Other analytical models intended to profile or describe him have drawn from classification systems such as: Liberal vs. Conservative, Democrat vs. Republican. Still other classification systems include: economic philosophy; size, role and function of government; tax and spending philosophy; and other criteria for identify, assessing, and labeling the President and his policies.
These classification systems are widely used to critique the performance, behavior and motivations of one's political allies or opponents. There is a whole body of literature and comprehensive political strategies that are employed to influence the political process. In fact, the application of these principles are what drove the political analysis and plans for the November 2010 mid-term elections and predictions about the 2012 Presidential Election. These analytics and applications are well known and understood and will continue to be employed for the foreseeable future.
However, there is another body of knowledge and practice that offer additional insights into an understanding of individual and organizational change and behavior. These principles of analysis and planning come from the social sciences and can utilize the same data and observations as other models but can become a path to achieve the same or different results. These models often have a long history of empirical research but are not typically used for political purposes. But there is a rich reservoir of knowledge that may offer a some new insights into analyzing the behavior of political leaders and political parties. Specifically, one can assess personal qualifications, personality attributes, communication processes and organization behavior as they impact political processes and outcomes.
Personal Qualifications and Behavior
Barack Obama's early childhood, educational background and work experience are fairly well documented as summarized above. There are two concepts from social sciences that provide some added insight into the information we know about his personal history - 1) personality type and 2) ability to process and manage information.
The is a theory of personality based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung that, in its simplest form, proposes that there are distinct types of personality which differ with the interaction of the individual's pattern of sensing, perceiving, thinking and feeling reality. Most people have an understanding of "extravert" and "introvert" which are also Jungian concepts. Subsequent students of Jungian psychology identified 16 personality types or temperaments. The most commonly used instrument for determining ones personality type is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). These 16 Types are made up of the dominant preferences an individual exhibits on the following modalities:
Emily Yoffe compared the personality types of the leading Presidential Candidates in Slate Magazine. Using the Jungian typology, Barack Obama is described as an ENFP (Extravert Intuitive Feeling Perceiving Type), an Idealist. This personality type is what psychologist David Keirsey, author of Please Understand Me II, calls "the Champion." ENFPs are convinced that they can easily motivate those around them. They believe they can inspire others by their enthusiasm, their silver-tongued oratory and "possibilities," not accepting things as they are. In a speech, Obama once said: "[W]e need leaders to inspire us. Some are thinking about our constraints, and others are thinking about limitless possibility."
Idealists are rare in any executive position. In a survey, consultant Otto Kroeger, co-author of Type Talk,did of the personality types who make it to top management, less than 1 percent were ENFPs and are found in only about 2 percent of the population.
Keirsey says, the Idealist leaders possess a "diplomatic intelligence." They "seek common ground," want to "forge unity," arrive at "universal truths," and are "trusting." This helps explain why Obama told Paris Match, "I want to have direct talks with countries like Iran and Syria because I don't believe we can stabilize the region unless, not just our friends, but also our enemies are involved in these discussions."
The ENFP can have a problem with "restlessness," says Kroeger. "As a task or responsibility drags on and its mantle becomes increasingly routine, the ENFP can become more pensive, moody, and even rigid." Obama's disorganization and dislike of paperwork surely influenced his choice of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff.
We see in Barack Obama a personality type that believes in his power of persuasion using his oratorical skills to confront and convince others of the correctness of his point of view. It helps explain why he personally travels around the country and the world to make his case, for the benefits of the health plan, to get the Olympics to come to Chicago, to defend the Stimulus Plan or the government's actions to assume greater control of our corporations and institutions. We also know that over-playing or over-relying on a particular trait can become a weakness. If talk substitutes for action, problems aren't solved, work isn't done.
As a tactic, Barack Obama, the ENFP Idealist Type, relies on his speaking ability to convince and persuade others to accept his programs and proposals, because he truly believes he is right or that others should accept his point of view. Practically speaking, he discounts, if not rejects, the opinions of others, as expressed to him in person or in poll numbers, and believes he will prevail in the end. This is his "modus operandi' and will predictably become a greater political liability as his Presidency continues.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton has been typed as an ESTJ (Extravertive Sensing Thinking Judging Type), also characterized as a "Guardian" or "Supervisor." These attributes according to Kiersey include being steadfast, cautious, methodical. They are reliable, detail oriented and take charge by nature. George HW Bush and Harry Truman are presumed ESTJ's. John McCain is presumed to be an ESTP (Extravertive Sensing Thinking Perceiving Type), also characterized by Kiersey as an "Artisan" or ":Promoter." By nature ESTP's are practical, cynical and focused. Promoters want a piece of the action so they can make something happen, whether on the battlefield or in the political arena. Both Roosevelts, JFK and LBJ are presumed to be ESTP's.
Time doesn't permit a fuller discourse here on the utility of using personality type in assessing personal or political effectiveness. Each personality type has strengths or preferred operating styles and weaknesses that are less developed attributes. Knowledge of one's own or another's strengths and weaknesses can be used to anticipate the actions and likely outcomes of that behavior. To the Idealist type, it can must be remembered that it is the "message and the messenger." If the message itself is not compelling, oratory alone will not prevail.
Ability to Process and Manage Information
Communication is essential to living things, people, organizations and mechanisms. People have differing capacities to receive, interpret and process information. In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, he develops the premise that we form impressions in the first few seconds that cause us to act in a particular way. Such rapid cognition and information processing enable us to act quickly. Whether an emergency room doctor or a policeman at a crime scene, what we information we perceive and what meaning we attach to it determines what actions we take.
From a social science perspective, our ability to assimilate information and act on it, is a measure of our personal and organizational effectiveness. According to communications theory, living organizations are information processing systems. One of the most articulate models for assessing individual and organizational information processing and information management capabilities was done by the late Elliott Jaques, MD, PhD. His original work on such concepts as Stratified Systems Theory (SST), Time Span of Discretion (TSD) and Complexity of Information Processing (CIP) is extremely helpful in evaluating the success of Barack Obama and providing another perspective on the Obama Presidency.
Stratified Systems Theory and Time Span of Discretion are both articulated in Jaques' seminal work, Requisite Organization. In simplest terms, organization roles exist in a hierarchy that can be stacked from low to high based on the time it takes to complete the tasks that are associated with those roles. For example, a clerk role consists of tasks that may take one day or up to 3 months to complete. A first line supervisor's role may take 3 months to 1 year to fulfill the functions of that job. As one goes up the organization ladder, the Time Span of Discretion increases to as much as 10 years or more for a President or Chief Executive Officer of a large corporation.
Jaques identified 7 discrete organization strata or levels each having a different managerial time horizon and which encompass every organization role. Successful organizations are those that associate tasks with the appropriate role and assign people to those roles who are capable of managing those tasks over the time horizon it takes to complete them. For example, a successful accountant (e.g. Level 1) would be one who can maintain accurate books and prepare timely weekly, monthly and quarterly financial reports. Similarly, a successful corporate officer (e.g. Levels 5 - 7) would need to be able to develop budgets, operating plans and strategic business plans that might require 5 to 10 years to accomplish and meet milestones along the way.
Building on the notion of organization task management as measured by information processing capacity, is the concept of Complexity of Information Processing. According to the concept, there are distinct levels of task complexity and a rate and sustained time horizon of information flow. One can measure jobs and individuals in terms of the type of information and complexity of the tasks they have experienced. For example, a life long assembly line worker can be assumed to be capable of handling a high volume of repetitive tasks. An insurance company executive or banker might demonstrate success in managing tasks over a period of years, as required by the business plan and in meeting shareholder expectations. Similarly, one can use these same templates to measure the capabilities and effectiveness of the President and his administration.
Based on what we know about Barak Obama's life and the principles of "Stratified Systems Theory", "Time Span of Discretion", and "Complexity of Information Processing", one can make the following observations about his ability to process and manage complex information:
To summarize the essence of the information processing and management assessment of Obama's attributes or qualifications for the presidency, one can conclude that the 4 year time horizon of his presidency exceeds his prior time spans, his span of control (cabinet, czars and commissions), as well as the complexity of his information processing experience and are significantly beyond his prior experience or "pay grade."
In addition to the personal attributes Obama possesses, he is also a member of an organization that includes the Executive Branch of Government, titular head of the Democrat Party, and supreme leader of the free world. As such, he is a functioning member of an organization that is at the same time, explicit and intangible. His behavior is a determinant of how these various organizations perform and makes singular contributions to their overall effectiveness. As with personality type, information processing capacity, the understanding and application of organization dynamics play a significant role in the presidency and party politics.
Another concept from social sciences that can contribute to an understanding of the assets and liabilities Obama brings to his Office comes from Systems Theory. From physics, physical and biological sciences comes the notion that individuals and organizations are living systems. Systems exist in an environment and must be able to internally adapt or cope with its external environment, if the organism is to thrive and survive.
For the purposes of this analysis, a simple system involves Input - Processing - Output. An organization exists in an environment that makes demands on the organization to which the organization must respond with outputs that satisfy those demands. An inadequate or excessive response to demands has consequences and effects that determine the success, viability and degree of fit the organization has with its environment, constituents or stakeholders.
While there is a large volume of empirical research and literature about systems theory in all of its aspects, the concepts that have particular application to the Obama presidency are the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Negative Entropy and Open Systems.
Simply stated, the Second law of Thermodynamics states that everything will ultimately fall apart, change and result in chaos or death. Over the long haul systems run down (i.e. entropy); however, through deliberate efforts to maintain an organization's viability and vitality (i.e. negative entropy), the system can compensate for the depletion of energy and maintain its efficacy. Individuals and organizations are "open systems" because they are able to engage with their environments and adapt to changing conditions through feedback they get from their environment.
Isaac Asimov stated it simply. "How difficult to maintain houses, and machinery, and our bodies in perfect working order: how easy to let them go. In fact, all we have to do is nothing, and everything deteriorates, collapses, breaks down, wears out, all by itself - and that is what the second law (of thermodynamics) is all about."
Applying these systems concepts to Barack Obama and his Administration, one can make the following observations:
From an organization dynamics perspective, this situation will be virtually impossible to overcome or reverse. As measured by polls, the environment and political climate has changed since he was elected to office. The team he selected to govern is numerous, diverse and generally lacking in executive management experience. Further team composition can be expected to change after the November elections and the time to build a consensus is probably too short, which will affect their ability to manage. By traditional team calculus, he won't have a "team" with shared values, a common vision and an effective working relationship after January 2011. Barack Obama himself appears to value his personal relationship from his campaign team and Chicago colleagues over an ability to work together and satisfy external demands that often vary significantly from his agenda.
We began this article with the premise that Barack Obama is the product of his own experience and that experience determines his unique capabilities and limitations to perform as President and manage the Executive Branch of Government. Using principles of social science, information theory, organization behavior, we are able to perhaps arrive at a different set of criteria to assess his propensities, impact and functioning as President. In summary, these concepts lead to the following conclusions:
Assuming these observations about attributes and abilities of the 44th President are largely correct, what might they portend for the future? What is a reasonable scenario that might develop over the rest of his term as President? The case can be made for something like this:
The rate and pace of his legislation agenda cannot be sustained. The economy has continued to decline and disaffection with his agenda has resulted in a sizeable Republican victory in the November 2010 general election. Members of his Party have lessened their resolve to "win one for the gipper" and moderated their support and distanced themselves with the Obama agenda, in order to get re-elected. Gross over reaching will continue to create a logjam in achieving the milestone events required to administer healthcare and other legislative tasks which will result in huge administrative failings, when specific provisions are scheduled to take effect in 2011 and beyond. The net effect of these missteps, caused by personal audacity and organizational naiveté, will further diminish his effectiveness as a leader. Defections will increase within Democrat leadership to the point that voices within the Party will vie for leadership in 2012, perhaps with a serious challenger for the presidential nomination. If Republicans can learn from Democrat mistakes and not try to assimilate and control the Tea Party Movement, they should increase their majority in November 2011.
To illustrate major tenets of this article using a simple example, consider this: everyone has a "bucket." The size of one's bucket varies with each person and evolves over time based on experience. One's bucket catches and holds the demands or requests for action that are placed on us. If we are efficient and productive, we act in a timely and responsive manner and our bucket never overflows. But if demands exceed our capacity to act, our bucket fills up and begins to spill over the side. After a while we can only respond to certain demands and we are unable to control what spills over the side. Over time our bucket gets too heavy to carry and we can't manage the inflow or outflow. We either need a larger bucket or better control of the flow.
We don't really know how big Barack Obama's bucket is yet. He is definitely taking on water, but we don't know if he's capable of handling all that he wants in his bucket. Based on these observations from the social sciences, he is not able to handle what's now in his bucket and his organization has no excess capacity either. His response to the outcome of the November 2010 election and the "lame duck" session indicate that some adaptation in the size and capacity of his "bucket" are underway. Models of personality, intellectual capacity and leadership ability can be used to assess future changes in his political agenda, how he implements them and how effective he is as President.
Jay Partin, Ph.D. has served as Managing Director of the Diameter Group, Ltd., a human resource management consulting firm, since 1988.
 Type Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, Love, and Work - Otto Kroeger, Delacorte Press, 1988.
 Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown and Company, 2005.
 Requisite Organization: The CEO's Guide to Creative Structure and Leadership - Cason Hall & Company, 1989.
 Human Capability: A Study of Individual Potential and its Application - Elliott Jaques and Kathryn Cason, London: Gower, 1994.