The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)

  • Teddy Roosevelt (belligerent, high-energy, charismatic)
  • Taft (cheerful, friendly, funny)
  • Woodrow Wilson (studious, serious, austere)
  • Harding (people pleaser, carouser)
  • Coolidge (boring, restrained, “man of few friends”)
  • Hoover (aloof, inscrutable, big on self-reliance)
  • FDR (gregarious, great expander of government, created cult of personality)
  • Truman (spontaneous, sneering, irascible)
  • Ike (stoic, honorable, affable, quiet, older)
  • Kennedy (young, aristocratic, orator, handsome)
  • Johnson (older, humble origins, plain spoken, lifetime politician, scrambler)
  • Nixon (self-made man, surly, paranoid, unethical, fiercely aggressive, proponent of realpolitik)
  • Carter (self-made man, young, idealistic, pusillanimous)
  • Reagan (self-made man, charismatic, strong, pragmatic, middle-brow)
  • Bush (patrician, serious, dull)
  • Clinton (self-made man, charismatic, smooth, young, carouser)
  • GW Bush (patrician, aggressive, traditionalist, poorly spoken)
  • Obama (self-made man, orator, cautious, serious, representative of multicultural ideal)
  • (???)

I left out Ford, because he was never elected to office. But that’s everyone who’s been elected president since 1900. It would be very easy to accuse me of cherry picking the way I described all of the presidents. But with the clear exception of Coolidge & Hoover, it is safe to say that the most notable distinguishing characteristics of presidents are precisely the traits that were lacking in the president who immediately preceded him. 

This is particularly true when someone from the other party takes office.

Why is this? My guess is because of recency bias. We overreact to what we dislike about our current leaders, and we forget what made us like them 4-8 years ago. We pick very different leaders, and then re-learn many of the lessons of history.

Know anyone who’s running for president that’s the opposite of a serious, cautious orator and representative of the multicultural ideal?

Yeah, me neither.