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October 18, 2016
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

What Is Presidential Temperament?

October 18, 2016 20:45 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW  [About the Author]

During the 2016 political season, there has been a lot of talk about temperament. Does this or that individual have the temperament to be president of the United States? It would appear that there is little agreement on what, exactly, constitutes temperament and which kind of character is most desirable in a political leader.

When dictionary definitions are compiled, “temperament” seems to include an individual’s general outlook on the world.

Does the candidate see his/her environment as friendly? Hostile? Overwhelming? Competitive? Welcoming? Or any other combination of characteristics that comprise his/her understanding of the nature of humanity?

It is important to try to gain an understanding of an individual’s belief system as decisions are made on voting choices. Whoever is elected will be defining and interpreting the tenor of events that affect citizens on a daily basis. This individual will have the ability to propose legislation that seems fitting for the current circumstances in local, national, and international events.

Temperament is made up of many different characteristics. One can be fearful and uncertain while believing in the value of equality among people. Another may appear to be driven and confident, and yet, see the world as a place where survival of the fittest is the rule. 

Because it is so complicated, it is impossible to fully discern an individual's nature. Some beliefs will be apparent and some hidden. The uncertainty that results from what is unknown results in confusion in the voting booth.

Trust has become a major issue. Polling results indicate that neither candidate, Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump, inspire confidence in the veracity of what each has to say. Who is being candid and who will shape their stated views only to engage voters? Who is inflexible and who is open-minded?

History tells us that Abraham Lincoln had the best possible temperament for his time. It is said that Lincoln was able to listen to his heart and his head. This would imply a profound self-knowledge and an impressive balancing act.

That he understood the way he understood is remarkable. The ability to withdraw self-interest and to hear with compassion and empathy is not often found in the political arena.

Lincoln suffered the loss of his mother at the age of nine. After that, a brother and sister died. Lincoln’s reaction to these losses helped him to understand the nature of deprivation. Rather than be weighed down by anger and fear, Lincoln rose above his situation and used it to deepen his understanding of human nature.

It is notable that he was known as “Honest Abe”. Even those who disagreed with Lincoln could acknowledge his efforts toward fairness and equality.

It has been reported that Lincoln always felt a sense of purpose. This is what drove him to achieve the levels of not only education but of wisdom that he offered to a very divided country.

Abraham Lincoln did not disparage those holding views that were different from his own. It has been documented that his extraordinary capacity for empathy together with his curiosity and kindly nature allowed him to learn and work with those who saw the world through a different lens. He was able to grasp the importance of emotions and the need to be heard.

In the 21st century, there is no consensus on the value of an empathetic leader. Bernie Sanders’ behavior during the 2016 election period epitomized the conduct of an individual who leads through caring. Mr. Sanders’ appeal, especially to young voters (Millennials) grew as he addressed the issues that concern them. College debt and the lack of jobs are big items with that group, and Sanders addressed these concerns directly.

Sanders’ presentation did not feel rehearsed or sloppy. The Millennials believed that he spoke from his heart - a 21st-century representation of an empathetic leader. This trust is what allowed Sanders to amass a surprising number of votes despite the fact that he was a self-described socialist, 74 years old, and had only recently become a Democrat after years of declaring himself to be an Independent.

Although Mr. Sanders did not win the Democratic nomination, he was able to impressively realign the Democratic platform toward a more Progressive stance than at any other time in history.

In 1933 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that Franklin D. Roosevelt had a second class intellect and a first-class temperament.  At the time that Roosevelt ascended to the Presidency, the United States was mired in the Great Depression.  Roosevelt was able to discern the need for a feeling of safety among the populace.  He was a gifted orator and showman and had the temerity to put new programs in place that were sponsored by the Federal government.

Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921. He never regained the ability to walk without assistance. It has been suggested that the physical pain he suffered both hardened him and made him more sensitive to others. One of his most appealing attributes was his ability to enjoy the company of many types of individuals:  wealthy, impoverished, well- and uneducated. His genuine regard for those who had merely survived The Great Depression, and were still struggling to provide for their families was felt by those who met him personally and/or listened to his radio broadcasts.

Historically, people have responded to optimism in their leaders. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt offered hope in times when circumstances were desperate. As children look to their parents and caretakers to guide them through life’s stumbling blocks, so do voters look to their elected representatives to show and lead the way to a better life. When focusing on what needs fixing an attitude of hope and “can do” is far preferable to a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Research tells us that temperament is an innate, inborn trait. Personality is outward-directed and can be adapted to any number of situations. We are born with certain sensitivities, intellect and instinctive likes and dislikes. It is possible to manage our temperament, but it remains rooted in the core of who we are. Behavior, on the other hand, can, if the subject is willing,  be altered in many directions.

Whoever is elected to the Presidency in 2016 will always be who they are. What they do is less predictable. These are considerations to keep in mind as November 8th approaches.



Arlandson, J. (2015, August 2). Presidential Temperament and Trump. Retrieved October 9, 2016

Drexler, P. (2016, September 27). How Important is Presidential Temperament. Retrieved October 9, 2016 

Graubard, S. (1989, August 20). FDR in the Middle Years:The Showman. Retrieved October 9, 2016 

Malhotra, N., & Margalit, Y. (2016, August 1). Do U.S. Voters Prefer Optimistic Politicians? Here's What We Found. Retrieved October 9, 2016 

Manion, L. (2016, January 12). Temperamental Presidents: One FDR, a First-class Temperament sure, but a First-class Intellect Too. Retrieved October 9, 2016 

S. (2016, August 1). Review of a First-Class temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. Retrieved October 9, 2016

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

I bring with me +30 years of experience as a clinician. My Masters degrees are from: Assumption College, Worcester, MA, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling/ and Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, MA, an MSW in Clinical Social Work. This is the 11th year I have written a monthly newsletter that is sent to approximately 500 individuals. The archive can be found on my website,

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