October 16th, 2008
04:35 PM ET

Does temperament matter?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/15/art.mccain.obama.split.jpg]Nancy Gibbs

Of all the false intimacies of modern life, the promise of a presidential campaign may be the most misleading. We think we know these men well enough to judge them. They come into our living rooms every night, plying us with insight and confession; we know the prayers they say and the beer they drink, their tics, their tastes, their talismans.

But both John McCain and Barack Obama insist that there are things a campaign can't tell you about the temperament of an aspiring President. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain asks, as he runs ads attacking his opponent's "bad instincts" and dangerous lack of judgment. Obama argues the reverse: You can't trust McCain because the one thing you know is that you never know what he'll do next. He's an impulsive hothead who is "erratic in a crisis." Is that really the guy you want steering through a storm?

That Obama's fortunes rose as the markets sank shows how central temperament has become in the homestretch of the presidential race. Only weeks ago, you might have expected that McCain's greater experience and his courage in the clutch would lift him as a leader in a moment of crisis. Yet the turn of the polls suggests the reverse; without taking a dramatically different approach on substance, Obama won this round on style and disposition.

Both candidates supported the bailout, and both call for tax cuts and policing of markets, but in tenor, they were polar opposites. Temperament is in the eye of the voter. Is one response evidence of composure and self-possession — or of being too laid-back and unassertive? Is the other response a sign of urgency and decisiveness or a frantic lack of control?

A funny thing happens when...


Filed under: Barack Obama • John McCain • Raw Politics
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. John Galt

    first impression always matter.
    i remember a time when reagan or clinton would walk off a plane....just arriving from meeting with world leaders. watching mccain last night simply gives me some idea of how his temperament will be with these world leaders be if he doesn't get his way. anger management anyone?
    in times of crisis, attitude is contagious. a cool headed leader is stressed inside but does not show it because he/she knows panic will spillover to his subordinates if he/she lets it show. a leader must be a pillar, a strong presence that cannot be moved by normal strength.
    negotiations are fragile. if you don't have the patience and sense f mind ot wait and listen, then talks will fail within the first five minutes.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:54 pm |
  2. deb in az

    i have to give it to mccain, because if that were me trying to make a point and someone was laughing at me while trying to make that point i might reach across the table and slap that smirk off his face.....obama is too cocky for his own good.......i am not the only one that sees this either... he reminds me of some spoiled child......plus he lied to the american people again about bill ayers.......why is this bill ayers teaching school anyway? this man should be in prison not out on the streets......its amazing that most of obamas friends hate america........this seems to be a pattern that he follows.......would obama pass a security clearance? dont think so with his past associates......

    October 16, 2008 at 5:52 pm |
  3. Hank from Colville Reservation

    Nancy, I agree with every word of the article, very well thought out and written. That is, everything but the last sentence of next to the last paragraph. I don't feel anything about George W. Bush should or can be included in what I feel would be the perfect President. Omit that small portion and it's a pretty nice read.

    Additionally, once having been a resident of Honolulu for more than 20 years, reading between your lines, I think the spirit of Aloha given to Barack Obama by his beloved 'Tutu' (grandmother) still runs through his veins. Aloha cools the spirit.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Maybe temperament does matter but I don't agree with your premise that Obama's fortunes rose during this economic crisis because of his temperament. Economic hard times seem to always favor the party that is not currently in power – I think Obama being a Democrat made his stock rise higher in the last few weeks than his temperament.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 16, 2008 at 5:48 pm |
  5. Robert Baumgartner

    The question to be raised regarding the negative campaigning of John McCain is one of tone. A true leader sets the tone of the debate and direction of the country. It is not the words or masked associations that are spoken, it is the tone that is set in those campaign stops. A leader who would qualify for the position of President needs to display the leadership qualities needed to set the tone of the country, and that includes the unspoken framework or mindset of the country towards what is good in America. John McCain pleads innocence to the tone of his own campaign. It shows to me, that although a good legislator, John McCain lacks the instinctual leadership qualities that can lead this country with integrity through the difficult times ahead.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Lawrence

    I like using boxing analogies.

    There are brash, flambouyant, quite, technicians, runners, low blow artist, pretty boys, toe to toe, can't take a punch but hit hard boxers and probably many more types.

    At different times you need a certain type to win, other times it may not matter if they can't take a punch if they don't get hit.

    This is one of those times when a specific type temperment is needed. Calm and cool under fire and able to take a punch. Flambouyant is not it nor really a hard hitter. We need smarts and consistency to lead during this storm. McCain just had a perfect storm against him. I don't think it can be termed fate, just that it is what it is.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Barb, Des Plaines

    Temperment matters. It reveals a lot about what's going on in a person's thought processes. Is there a dark cloud shadowing an individual's thoughts? Are you likely to panic and let fear influence your thinking when the stuff hits the fan?

    A wise old friend used to refer to this effect as "stinky thinking." I watch for it when I meet people and try to avoid people who practice it.

    I'm disappointed in Sen. McCain's performance in his general election campaign. His demeanor last night showed that he's not comfortable making personal attacks. (I remember in the past McCain was quite forgiving of Jane Fonda and the Vietnam War protesters. In past interviews McCain stated his belief that his constituents did not want him harbor hatred toward those he disagreed with. Is that why he kept squirming and blinking?

    McCain's thinking now seems chalk full of negativity, fear, panic. He's clearly in an attack mode, and he's betraying himself and what he stands for. Does his tempermant matter to me? You're darned right it matters.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:41 pm |
  8. k_michael

    I am in full agreement with GT.

    If you are having a disagreement with a neighbor, and are bristling with hostility and show obvious disdain when you approach him, all you'll get is the same thing right back.

    Now, if you anger your neighbor by treating him like garbage, the consequences are merely personal (maybe he throws stuff in yoru yard or steals your trash can). But interantionalaly, in an age of nuclear weapons? Not to be rude, but, only an idiot thinks it's smart to use body language and vocal intonations that immediately tell an adversary that you don't want to be botehred listenign and merely want to make demands.

    It's the often-inconvenient yet supremely-wise Golden Rule. peopel tend to react in keeping with one's attitude. You don't receive respect when you give only disdain.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:39 pm |
  9. Judith Walden

    To a masterful statesperson I believe a steady and straightforward temperment are important. If gives the people you serve confidence in the face of crisis and security in the face of danger. Without a cool, calm, collected attitude your thinking will get muddled and go astray.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:27 pm |
  10. Lmitche

    mc cain temperment scares me. mccain has a really bad temper. he doesnt even look into the eye

    October 16, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Suzi, Billerica, MA

    Temperment is one of the most important factors, for I wonder how many devastating wars could have been stopped, how many helpful bills could have been passed and how many helpful alliances could have been made if leaders had more equanimity.

    Will McCain's temperment of temper and impulsiveness make him a war monger and unable to find middle ground before resorting to war? I say yes and he is the dangerous one in my opinion.

    Will Obama's temperment of calmness and thoughtfulness make him unprepared to realize some terrorists can not be reasoned with? It is the only weakness I see in Obama but I think he will listen to advisors like Biden so I am not so worried.

    Will Sarah Palin's temperament of not caring enough to read up on national, economic and foreign matters the past 50 years affect her ability to understand the world or her temperment to ban, fire and slander keep our democracy health and our governement partisan groups cooperative? I say no and find her the most dangerous to ever expire to a heart beat from the president- far worse than Quayle!

    Will Biden's temperment to say things without thinking cause him to make enemies that will hurt this country? Well, everyone in congress seems to still like him and all put his foreign policy experience on a pedastel so I think he will be okay.

    Did Bush's temperment to hold a grudge against Saddam for his disputes with his father, affect his rush to war with Iraq? I say yes and look what it has done to the world and our position of economic and military security – not good.

    Did Bush and Cheney's temperment to please their base and contributors affect decisions to rush to a war that helps the war machine and infrastructure rebuilding industry make enormous profits (see Farenheight 911 to see those meetings where they are drooling at the prospect of the war and the profits they will reap!)? I say yes and look at how the divide between the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has gotten, and the poor generally fight our wars while the rich generally profit off of them!

    Did Clinton's temperment to be vunerable to an overweight ditzy thong showing pretty female intern cause him to spend years lying and worrying about accusations when he could have focused on getting Bin Laden and the then fomenting terrorist threats? I say yes and no one on either side put country first in this political witch hunt like the one McCain camp is now doing to Obama with his minor charity board interactions Ayers et al.

    Did Carter's temperment of meekness make him ineffective in the Iranian embassy hostage situation? I say yes and he was one of the finest human beings to be president but was ineffective in that situation.

    Did Reagan's temperment hatred of atheists and communist social systems and belief in the supernatural make him less open to finding common ground hence bringing down that mamoth and now leaving those areas open to terrorism and places where terrorists can get nuclear arms from places without a strong control, need of money and nuclear weapons – dangerous combinations? I say yes that an unstable block of rogue postSoviet states still with nuclear weapon arsenals sitting around wasting away are more dangerous to world security in light of growing terrorism than the Soviet ever was!

    etc. etc. so temperment is very very very important!

    October 16, 2008 at 5:16 pm |
  12. Carol

    I agree with GT – that's what I was thinking while watching the debate.

    Also, I thought McCain seemed "erratic" once again when he launched into his whole Ayers speech for the 100th time, then ended it with "I don't care about some washed-up old terrorist, my campaign is about the economy".

    McCain looked like he's losing his marbles as well as the election. Not the person we need representing us around the world.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:16 pm |
  13. Lorraine, Concord CA

    I believe temperment matters and depending of the time or the state that we are in as a country deems for what type of temperment we need in the white house. We happen to be in a time of an economic crisis and we need a President to has a steady temperment because we don't know just how much worse it can get and anything is possible. If we select a candidate who is easily ruffled or has a short temper we are at risk of taking this Country into the wrong direction. If the US was in a different position than what we currently have, like say that the war in Iraq was actually suceeding or our economy was strong then perhaps we would look to a President who came accross agressive and eagar to take risky decisions. But time calls for someone who is calm and can 'take the hear' and I believe that is why Obama is ahead in the polls.

    October 16, 2008 at 5:11 pm |
  14. J from DC

    Yes, and Obama gets points for that. I am sick of Joe Plumber, he is the new gimmick. Move over Palin. Will I have to listen to three more weeks of him. Obama can take three more week of attacks, I don't think I can listen to three more weeks of them. Can we get something else from McCain other then gimmicks?

    October 16, 2008 at 5:05 pm |
  15. Vicki Spencer

    Well it matters when you pick out a dog...why wouldnt it matter?

    October 16, 2008 at 5:01 pm |
  16. Nettie Jones

    Temperment matters ;the crisis facing america is to great , we need a president even if he makes a mistake , there needs to be a steady hand at the wheel if McCain is angry in these little debates what will that anger lead to in dealing with the demands of a nation If I'm going down I hope somebody's there that's calmer than I am and that spells O-B-A-M-A

    October 16, 2008 at 5:00 pm |
  17. penny

    "john mccain says he reaches across party lines, he can't reach across the table. He is such an undercover bigot who shows lack of respect. He is so irritating. How much longer will he insult the intelligence o f the American people. He is so nauseating to look at. Furthermore, he thinks that he is so important. He isn't good enough to kiss my dog. He shows no respect. "

    October 16, 2008 at 4:48 pm |
  18. Suzanne Banta

    Obama's appeal is that he projects one basic principal of life...He gives everyone a certain level of respect. McCain on the other hand wants everyone to give him respect.

    October 16, 2008 at 4:43 pm |
  19. GT

    Does temperment matter? Does it matter what temperature you bake cake? Of course it matters. If a presidential candidate can not keep their cool during a debate, how do we expect that they will act during international diplomacy. Oh wait – we know how they will act – just like George Bush – the ol "It's my way or you'll pay a price" attitude.

    October 16, 2008 at 4:38 pm |