Recently there's been a lot of talk about the temperaments
of our presidential candidates. John McCain's temperament has been criticized
as being hot-headed and mercurial, even "erratic." Barack Obama's temperament,
meanwhile, has been lauded as being unfailingly calm, unflappable. During an
economic crisis, it is claimed, the American people will seek just such a
Nonetheless, as I argued in an article for National Review, in
the first debate, it was McCain's temperament that showed to advantage. While
Obama was trying hard to appear presidential, McCain's passionate love for his
country, the soldiers in Iraq,
and the veterans shone forth. After the debate, several commentators expressed
puzzlement by the fact that Obama seemed to agree with McCain a lot, for a
Of course! This is because he is phlegmatic.
One of the classic four temperaments originally proposed by
Hippocrates (the father of medical science) the phlegmatic temperament is known
for being harmonious, calm and easy-going, diplomatic. At first glance, one
might think even presidential.
McCain, on the other hand, is choleric. Cholerics are passionate, decisive, opinionated,
stubborn, and driven. To paraphrase choleric Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there
is nothing they love so much as a good fight. His
temperament is in part what defines him as a war-hero and Senate maverick. He
is passionate, courageous, and capable of making tough decisions without
pandering to anyone.
Phlegmatic and choleric are just two of the classic four temperaments originally proposed by
Hippocrates, the father of medical science, circa 350 BC. Our books, The
Temperament God Gave You and The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse, explore
the concept of the classic four temperaments in detail. (www.sophiainstitute.com ) In a nutshell, temperament is that part of the
human personality that is innate in us, from birth. It doesn't change much over
time. Though it is not the whole of one's personality, the way we are
"hard-wired" is vitally important.
McCain and Roosevelt, are classic leaders–passionate, decisive, outspoken, and
persevering. Sanguines are
schmoozers–friendly, talkative, impulsive, and optimistic. One writer
described Bill Clinton as having a "desperate need to make you like him." This
is typical of a sanguine. Melancholics
are intense, noble, pessimistic and, well, melancholy. (Think Abraham Lincoln.)
And phlegmatics (like Obama) are calm under pressure, easy-going, diplomatic.
One's character is, arguably, more important than one's
temperament. If we are talking about character, McCain has certainly proved his
to be courageous, noble, persevering, and strong. We know very little about
Obama's character, other than what we have learned from his two biographies: a
smart man, he seemed lost throughout much of his youth, and only fairly
recently came to focus his attention in an ambitious and swift rise to
But the media are focusing on temperament rather than character–perhaps
precisely because they believe that this is one area where Obama shines. But
every temperament has both strengths and weaknesses. The flip side of Obama's
even temper is that he is dispassionate, detached, too capable of getting
along. He may acquiesce too easily,
may be too willing to compromise his own (and our country's) values–in the
face of very real threats. Dreams from My Father reveals Obama's temperament
as being, on many occasions, unwilling to confront difficult situations and
instead, content to retreat in silence. In one telling interchange, a fellow
organizer confronts Obama:
"Do you mind if I ask you
"No, go ahead."
"Why are you here? Doing
this work, I mean."
"For the glamour."
"No, I'm serious. You said
yourself you don't need this job. And you're not very religious, are you?"
"So why do you do it?
That's why Will and I do this, you know. Because it's part of our faith. But
with you, I don't- "
After his initial flippant response ("for the glamour"), Obama never really
answers this question. He leaves it hanging in the air. "I don't think our
reasons are all that different," he finally offers-a non-answer, a kowtow to
both sides, a half-hearted appeal to faith without any real substance. Sort of
like his appeal to "change."
The danger for phlegmatics is that they may agree at all costs, even to the
point of sacrificing their own principles. Obama quit his church of twenty
years when it proved too big a negative for his campaign. Either Obama
sacrificed his own principles for the sake of the election, or he had never
agreed with Jeremiah Wright in the first place, and had been compromising his own
principles for twenty years! Either way,
one questions his conviction.
McCain, on the other hand, has both the temperament and the character to do what
is necessary to see this country through our present financial crisis–as well
as the moral crisis of abortion, the threat of terrorism, and the oppression of
peoples around the world.
"[Obama] is the least angry man," praises
Joe Klein, in a recent article in Time magazine.  That
may be. But there is a time and a place for righteous
Which candidate has the moral fiber, the strength of character, the
conviction and, yes, the strong-willed temperament necessary to take on the
true crises of our time?
Obama, Dreams from My Father. New
York: Three Rivers Press, 1995. pp 176-179.
Klein, "Crisis Management." Time. vol. 172, no. 15, 2008.