THE NATION : THE PRESIDENT : A Psychological Study of Clinton: The Blurring of Personal Boundaries

<i> Ronald A. Heifetz, a psychiatrist, is director of the Leadership Education Project of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of "Leadership Without Easy Answers" (Belknap/Harvard University Press)</i>

What sort of a person is President Bill Clinton? What is it about him that creates a lack of trust? Is he a con artist, faking empathy, as many imagine every time he bites his lower lip, or does he really care about people? Clinton’s decision-making style reveals the answer.

First, Clinton struggles over decisions. Second, he has the reputation for being influenced by the last person to speak with him before he decides. And third, he doesn’t let go of decisions once they are made. He loses sleep.

Con artists do not behave this way. An effective con artist uses information gleaned from getting inside other people’s skins to manipulate them. Having taken in someone else’s feelings, con men do not hesitate to exploit the opening. They have no difficulty making decisions, because the objective is clear: self-interest, regardless of the cost to others. Furthermore, they aren’t easily influenced by anyone--first, third or last in line--because they know what they want. Con men don’t lose sleep.

So, Clinton is not a con man.


That leaves two possibilities to explain Clinton’s decision-making style.

On one hand, perhaps Clinton has the personal need to ingratiate himself with others, wanting to please everybody. This is the prevailing interpretation. Many people say Clinton acts as if he cares about others, when, in fact, his primary concern is what others think of him--being liked is what counts.

On the other hand, Clinton’s skin may be so thin that he too readily empathizes with others, with their arguments and sentiments, and then cannot issue decisions he knows are only partly right and might cause pain.

Virginia Kelley, Clinton’s mother, gave some clues to distinguish between these possibilities in her autobiography, written the year before she died.


People who ingratiate themselves, needing always to please, often do this as an adaptation to precarious parental love that seems contingent on meeting specific expectations. Striving to please seems the only way to maintain parents’ approval. It isn’t safe to deviate from expectations.

That does not seem to be the case with Clinton. His mother’s book says Clinton was unconditionally adored--by both his mother and his stepfather, Roger Clinton. He did not have to worry about winning the love of those closest to him. He was bathed in love and approval. A far cry from a model of ingratiation, his mother passed on the principle: “Be who you want to be, and don’t worry about what people say about you. You wear your armor on the inside.”

Indeed, as candidate and President, Clinton has taken about as much grief as anyone can imagine, yet he still gets up in the morning. If his major concern were pleasing people, then surely he would have shown some sign of buckling.

What young Clinton did have to worry about, and adapt to, however, was a household full of parental conflict, where the generational boundaries of authority were confused. As his mother describes, “Bill was father, brother and son in this family.” His stepfather was often intoxicated and frequently fought with his mother. That means young Clinton was exposed to the pains of his parents, and he took on the role of caretaker--consoling and soothing them however he could.


A caretaker attempts to reduce the pain of others, and one’s own pain caused by the distress of others. Indeed, the delineation between personal feelings and the feelings of others becomes blurred. Young Clinton could not help but be disturbed by conflicts between the parents he loved and was loved by. So, by consoling them, he also consoled himself. As caretaker, he did not develop a normal callous to enable him to distinguish between his own feelings and those of others. Instead, he takes on other people’s feelings and then goes into action to help them.

Thus, people misunderstand Clinton when they see him as either an uncaring con artist or an ingratiating politician. Both, if true, would be reason to distrust him, and because the public routinely applies one or both of these misperceptions, Clinton is widely distrusted.

In fact, Clinton seems to care too much about others for his own good. He too readily appreciates their perspective--feels their pain. He has thin personal boundaries. That makes it difficult to make decisions, because at the presidential level, almost every decision, from organizing the White House to directing public policy, causes grief. And Clinton hates causing pain.

Moreover, because he so easily gets inside others’ hearts and minds, it takes time for Clinton to distill his own opinions. Distillation requires the externalization of arguments through extensive discussion of competing perspectives. His wife, Hillary, is helpful in this. Her clear voice helps him shake down the flurry of perspectives that he carries in his head.


It is this characteristic of “too much empathy” that explains Clinton’s decision-making style, even the “waffling” he is criticized for.

Presidents, of course, are in the business of distributing pain. It is no accident that the word decide has the same root as suicide and homicide . It means “to kill.” Psychologically, decisions often feel like little killings--at least of other options, and often of other people’s concerns. No matter how much we strive for win-win solutions, decisions often mean real losses for some people.

We need Presidents who care, but we also need Presidents with a stomach for distributing pain. During these two years, Clinton has shown he can take it; but he has not shown he can dish it out.

People don’t know what Clinton cares about in particular because, by caring about everything, he seems to care about nothing.


How does this play out now, given the GOP takeover of Congress?

Clinton’s priority as President must be to restore trust in our public institutions, beginning with the presidency. People demand change--not because they want all new laws and programs but because they want to trust their institutions once again. They long to trust their President and their government.

That’s why they turned George Bush out of office. They couldn’t trust that he would keep his word after he raised taxes, and they didn’t believe he cared about their problems.

Restoring trust is a presidential duty. No one else can do it. And without it, no bold policy initiatives are possible. Thus, every presidential act, from internal staffing decisions to the sequencing of policy initiatives has to be held accountable to the question of trust.


For Clinton, this means three things. First, he has to show that the core values of his presidency represent the core values of the nation. He has to communicate, through action, a few clear priorities that differentiate his core passions from his diffuse caring. He must stop making people dizzy by trying to do too much.

Second, Clinton must show that government can work. The image of Harry S. Truman’s successful attack on a “do-nothing Congress,” in 1948, is a dangerous model for today. After 30 years of eroding faith in our political institutions, America cannot afford two more years of gridlock.

Third, and perhaps most critical, Clinton needs to demonstrate the personal ability to fill out the role of presidential authority. He needs to manage far more tightly the boundary of authority that separates him from everyone else. He cannot be in the trenches so frequently, talking so readily. If he does not contain himself, people will not trust that he can contain their fears and frustrations.

Conveying hope is not the same as conveying trustworthiness. Coming from behind to squeak out legislative victories does not provide confidence. The “Comeback Kid” is the wrong image. People need the President to be the nation’s ultimate authority--embodying core values, tackling a few tough priorities and dishing out the necessary pain.*