For the past 18 months, I've been obsessing about Barack Obama's Myers-Briggs type. He's not easily reducible to any pat description. President Obama (have I mentioned how much I love saying, "President Obama?") is no cliché. But I'll try to deduce his type anyway.
According to the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), everyone uses four different types of mental processes, each of which has two poles: introversion/extraversion, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging. We have access to all of these functions, but we tend to prefer one of each pair. Keep in mind that the MBTI refers to preferences, not destinies. We all have the ability to develop each of the styles described by the MBTI, although not all of us do. Let's look at how President Obama checks out.
The first MBTI dimension is extraversion. Introversion and extraversion describe how people get their energy. Extraverts get their energy from other people, the world, and experiences. Introverts get their energy from themselves or their own space. Extraverts are often chatty, social and open; introverts are often quiet, reflective and contained. President Obama has displayed both extraverted and introverted behaviors. It's hard to imagine how someone could attend thousands of political events over the course of years without being an extravert. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how someone could write two long books about identity and ideas without being introvert.
My assessment is that Obama is an extravert. He likes variety, spends a lot of time in physical activities, and seems to get energized from the world as a whole. He's smart and academic, but favors action over contemplation. Consider his legal career. Though he's a graduate of Harvard Law School, he never spent much time practicing law, which is generally an introverted profession. (For more on this, see chapter 7 of my book, The Creative Lawyer). While he spent a number of happy years teaching law, he focused on the teaching aspect (showing extraversion) rather than the scholarship aspect (showing introversion). I would ascribe his success as a writer to focus and discipline as opposed to an inherent love of sitting by himself with a laptop for thousands of hours.
The second Myers-Briggs function is intuition vs. sensing. Intuitives are drawn to concepts, the big picture, and possibilities. Sensing types are drawn to facts, details and concrete reality. Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, is obviously an intuitive. He is all about ideas, patterns and possibilities. No sensing type would use the slogan "change we can believe in." There can be no dispute here.
The third Myers-Briggs function is thinking vs. feeling. Both of these are ways of thinking. Thinkers prefer to make decisions based on impartial, objective principles; feelers prefer to make decisions based on strongly held personal values or the effect on other people. Thinkers are rule-based; feelers are exception-making. Thinkers tend to think logically; feelers tend to think associatively.
This is the hardest parameter for me to pin down conclusively. Obama shows a lot of feeling characteristics. He has spent a lot of time wondering how other people are thinking, feeling and behaving. He loves language and has made himself into a standout public speaker. Memoirists are typically intuitive-feelers. Intuitive-thinkers are not nearly so interested in plumbing the depths of identity and culture.
But while Obama is skilled at accessing his feeling side, I believe he is fundamentally a thinker. He abstracts out of situations, sees broader patterns, and makes decisions dispassionately. While he considers how other people will feel, he probably does not make his decisions based on how other people will feel but instead on thinker-type analyses of cause and effect. My hunch is that Obama's ability to read other people's thoughts comes from three factors: being biracial, living for many years outside the the continental U.S., and growing up very close to his mother and grandmother. Each of these factors would require someone to ask questions about what other people are thinking, and figure out ways to negotiate one's own needs with those of others. (As the son of a single mother, I will assert that most men raised by single mothers develop stronger empathy skills than their counterparts from two-parent families.) My assessment: thinker.
The last Myers-Briggs polarity is judging/perceiving. This refers to attitudes about closure. People with a preference for judging like to be scheduled, organized, and know where they stand; people with a preference for perceiving are more spontaneous and open-ended.
This is another variable where President Obama's external appearance may be deceiving. Obama's public presentation is consistently buttoned up, disciplined and organized. He always seems to be in a white shirt and tie. (When he wears a leather jacket and sunglasses, it almost seems like a temporary costume change.) He hits the gym every morning without fail and throughout the campaign primarily subsisted on salmon, broccoli and brown rice.
Obama seems like a J - but I think he's actually a P. Consider this quote from Michelle Obama from a 1996 interview (extracted from last week's New Yorker).
"Barack has helped me to loosen up and feel comfortable with taking risks, not doing things the traditional way and sort of testing it out, because that is how he grew up . . . he's just more out there, more flamboyant."
This is someone describing an extravert who has a strong perceiving, in-the-moment side. Obama is disciplined, to be sure. But a large part of his success has been his ability to capture opportunities as they came up, whether it was moving to Chicago after law school, running for Senator from Illinois, or turning the current economic meltdown into a platform for major change. His success has come from being flexible, not rigid. He seems to achieve his goals by being focused on core principles, but loose in execution.
Taken as a whole, the ENTP diagnosis seems to fit him. ENTP's are known to be the most entrepreneurial type. They explore new ideas and interests (not all of which they may wish to follow up) and are always evaluating how things fit together based on additional information. They like variety in tasks and people, and are constantly synthesizing how things fit together - whether it's racial identity or fiscal policy.
Barack Obama has the un-ENTP characteristics of discipline, focus and introspection. But at heart, he wants to be in the world of action, not the world of cogitation, and while he's capable of following things through, he's much more interested in launching new things.
Obama has spent a good part of his life evaluating his own identity, but I believe that his goal -- whether he knew this consciously or not -- was to have an effect on the external world, not simply to gain inner peace. He's an introspective guy - but he's still an ENTP.