Ignacio Arana Araya – The “personal” versus the “institutional” presidency: An artificial divide

This is a guest post by Ignacio Arana Araya, Institute for Politics and Strategy, Carnegie Mellon University

Mainstream media and political analysts seem obsessed covering the eccentricities and peculiarities of the occupant of the White House, adventuring how Trump’s limitations as a statesman may have undesired impacts on executive governance. Trump’s unpredictable behavior and decision-making style have stunned many observers, but both recent and historical presidents of the Americas also had flamboyant personalities (and performances). Idiosyncratic presidents, in fact, have always existed. Not so long ago, Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (1999-2013) and Abdalá Bucaram of Ecuador (1996-1997) used to hit international headlines for their extravagances. Bucaram, popularly nicknamed “El Loco,” was eventually impeached by Congress for – officially – being a madman. What these eccentric characters remind us is that those who hold the most important political offices in their countries bring their unique personalities to power with them, and such uniqueness has an impact on their performance. However, students of the presidency have generally failed to quantitatively measure how the personality traits of the leaders may impact executive governance.

Arguably, this failure occurs mainly because students of the presidency have failed to absorb research on differential psychology. This brand of psychological research studies the individual differences of humans, or how people differ from each other in how they feel, act, think and behave. Absorbing the theoretical, empirical, and methodological contributions of the differential psychology literature would also allow integrating the research of scholars who focus on the “personal” presidency and those who center on the “institutional” presidency.

Both research streams have run through parallel corridors, leading to conflicting views on how the presidency works. The president-centered (also called “personality-centered”) approach examines decision making in the executive branch based on presidential behavior. Scholars from this group examine the ability of presidents to persuade individuals and organizations to accommodate policy making to their preferences. They argue that the heads of government have plenty of room to act and decide at their own discretion. Since the individual attributes of the leaders influence policy outcomes, it is necessary to analyze the personal characteristics of the leaders to understand executive politics (Neustadt 1960; Barber 1972; Greenstein 2009).

In contrast, presidency-centered (also called “institutional presidency”) studies minimize the importance of presidents as individuals and center the explanation of policy outcomes on the institutional setting in which heads of government work (e.g., Moe 1993; Dickinson 2004; Lewis 2008). The central assumption in this approach is that different presidents will behave similarly in identical contexts. It regards the study of the characteristics of the leaders as unworthy because more explanatory leverage is -supposedly- gained when scholars analyze the effect of institutional factors on policy outcomes.

The opposing theoretical views have contributed to a divide of students of the presidency along two methodological lines with little interconnection. While presidency-centered researchers mainly conduct statistical or game-theoretic analyses, most president-centered studies are qualitative.

I argue that the division wall between presidency-centered and president-centered explanations of the presidency is built on unsound foundations. Presidency-centered scholars have assumed that the personal characteristics of presidents 1) are of little relevance to understand their behavior and that 2) such features cannot be systematically measured because they are idiosyncratic. Although president-centered researchers do not share these assumptions, they have also failed to recognize that 1) on differential psychology there is a broad consensus on what human personality is, and that 2) personalities tend to be stable over time.

These misconceptions have had profound consequences. Presidency-centered researchers claim that presidents cannot be used as units of analysis in quantitative studies (e.g., King 1993) and that analytically little is lost leaving the uniqueness of the heads of government aside. However, a vast corpus of psychological research contradicts the assumption that the specificity of presidents is irrelevant to understand their behavior. The literature on differential psychology has shown that all individuals have stable personality differences and that these differences strongly explain their behavior (Judge et al. 1999; Goldberg 1990; McCrae and Costa 1997; Costa and McCrae 1992). Since personality traits are stable, they can be systematically studied. Presidents can be treated as units of analysis in statistical analyses. Although president-centered scholars recognize the importance of the personal characteristics of the presidents, they have often discussed psychological attributes of the leaders arbitrarily, paying little attention to psychological research (e.g., Greenstein 2009).

I propose that to have a deeper understanding of the presidency, we need to start testing hypotheses that include presidency-centered and president-centered paradigms. To do so, it is necessary to reposition the individual differences of leaders as a central cause of political phenomena in quantitative research. And we cannot do that unless we absorb the knowledge produced from the discipline that has studied how humans differ from each for the last 130 years.


Barber, James D. 1972. The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Costa, Paul T. Jr., and Robert R. McCrae. 1992. “Normal personality assessment in clinical practice: The NEO Personality Inventory.” Psychological assessment 4(1): 5-13.

Dickinson, Matthew J. 2004. “Agendas, agencies and unilateral action: new insights on presidential power?” In Congress & the Presidency: A Journal of Capital Studies 31(1):99-109.

Goldberg, Lewis R. 1990. “An Alternative ‘Description of Personality’: The Big Five Factor Structure.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59(6): 1216-1229.

Greenstein, Fred I. 2009. Inventing the job of president: leadership style from George Washington to Andrew Jackson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Judge, Timothy A., Chad A. Higgins, Carl J. Thoresen, and Murray R. Barrick. 1999. “The Big Five Personality Traits, General Mental Ability, and Career Success across the Life Span.” Personnel Psychology 52: 621–652.

King, Gary. 1993. “The Methodology of Presidential Research,” in George Edwards, III, John H. Kessel, and Bert A. Rockman, eds., Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Approaches. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh: 387–412.

Lewis, David E. 2008. The politics of presidential appointments: Political control and bureaucratic performance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McCrae Robert R., Paul T. Costa Jr. 1997. “Personality Trait Structure as a Human Universal.” American Psychologist 52(5): 509-516.

Moe, Terry M. 1993. “Presidents, Institutions, and Theory.” In George C. Edwards III, John H. Kessel and Bert A. Rockman, eds., Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Approaches. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Neustadt, Richard. 1960. Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership. New York: Wiley and Sons.

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