The Tale of a President

The Tale of a President starts a series of articles on recent Spanish Prime Minister’s Presidencies, including Jose Maria Aznar’s and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s. The series stems from the American tradition to study and compare US Presidents across time. Two articles for former President Aznar and two for President Zapatero will complete the series. The current article presents the literature used and discusses the methodology of the three American scholars Stanley A. Renshown, James David Barber and Fred I. Greenstein.

The Spanish recent democracy is a parliamentary monarchy in which the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, exerts the supreme command of the armed forces but has no executive power. The President of the Government (Presidente del Gobierno) is the equivalent of a Prime Minister in other parliamentary monarchies like that of Britain or The Netherlands. Mandates are capped to four years, but a candidate can run for as many mandates as he or she is elected for. In the recent democratic stage Felipe Gonzalez ruled for four consecutive mandates and a total of 13 years (1983-1996), Jose Maria Aznar stepped down voluntarily after two mandates and a total of eight years (1996-2004) and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is likely to complete his second four year mandate for a total of eight years (2004-2012), being uncertain at this point whether he will run for a third mandate.


Stanley A. Renshon wrote his masterpiece The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates published by Routledge in 1998. Rhenson is a Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. In the book’s foreword Alexander L. George raises the question Rhenson answers throughout his superb book: “What are the essential qualifications for performing the increasingly complex and difficult responsibilities of the enhanced presidency?”. Rhenson overviews the traits of a President’s character and personality and whether qualities such as ambition may or may not be detrimental for a President’s successful mandate while in Office. He notes (page 39) that “Political parties whose platforms and candidates have reflected too narrow an ideological spectrum, as did the Republicans in 1964 and the Democrats in 1984, have suffered electoral losses”, which could well be the case in this year’s recent election in the United States, lost by the Republicans, or rather won by the Democrats in his brilliant former candidate, now President Elect, Barack Obama.

Bipartisanship requires that a President behave as a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Were Aznar and Zapatero pragmatists or ideologues? Did they change their pattern of behaviour while in Office? Renshon adds (page 47) that “The boundaries separating private from public are becoming increasingly permeable for political leaders”. Are Spanish Presidents accountable for what occurs in their private spheres? Were Aznar and Zapatero able to maintain their private lives away from their political agendas? What role did Aznar’s wife Ana Botella and Zapatero’s wife Sonsoles Espinosa play as First Ladies, if any?

The psychological stability or mental health of a President refers to a President’s ability to run his or her political agenda rationally. Mental health is important for a person with such political responsibility. Was Aznar mentally healthy? Did Zapatero’s early childhood affect his ruling style based on his self-called “talante”? To what extent have Aznar and Zapatero shaped their policies on personal beliefs? Is it legitimate to do so? Judgement, a word that has frequently been in Obama’s mouth, is more important than rationality. Renshon adds (page 116) “What presidents require is not more rationality but better judgement. It is judgement, not rationality, that promises to provide insight into the making of high-quality decision”. Has judgement or rationality prevailed in Aznar and Zapatero’s mandates? A pshychologically healthy President could carry disastrous decisions, which seems to have been the case of George W. Bush.

How important is empathy? Renshon comments (page 219) that “empathy attunement refers to the capacity to understand another by entering into an appreciation of the other’s experiences, feelings, expectations, and perspectives”. Spanish Presidents seem to be more empathic when their parties do not hold absolute majority (176 seats and up in Spanish Assembly (Congreso de los Diputados). Aznar and Zapatero had to be empathic with Basque and Catalan nationalist parties when negotiating coalition governments in 1996 and 2004, understanding their requests and demands for more autonomy and fulfilling some of them in exchange for political support granting a majority in the Madrid-based Assembly.


James David Barber was a Political Scientist at Duke University who passed away in 2004. Barber’s four definitions for psychological profiles of Presidents are well known in the academic world. According to an article on the Washington Post (James Barber Dies; Studies Presidents’ Psyches, 15 September 2004), Barber “identified four central categories of presidential types: active-positive (high self-esteem, flexible, goal-oriented), active-negative (compulsive, power-seeking), passive-positive (genial and agreeable but easily wounded) and passive-negative (dutiful, withdrawing from political fights).

It is not always easy to assign one in four profiles to a particular President. A President could switch from one profile to another during the course of his or her Presidency, but this is not the likely outcome of an assessment. Aznar’s first six years in office were active-positive, while the last two years were passive-negative. Zapatero’s first year was active-negative, while his subsequent four years have been active-positive.


In his book The Presidential Difference Greenstein tries to answer the question “What makes a successful President”. He reviews the terms of each and every US President for the last 70 years, starting in Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending in George W. Bush. The analysis conducted for each President ranks them in a handful of categories, including: political communication, organization capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence. How do Aznar and Zapatero rank in each of these categories? In the United States, for example, and according to Greenstein, Eisenhower wins in organization and Reagan in vision. George W. Bush’s vision of spreading out democracy in the Middle East using preventive war did not materialize into positive results, so he would score low in vision.


In the next four articles Jose Maria Aznar and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s childhoods and youths will be described and their impact on both President’s future political persona will be determined. The political adequacy of their personalities will then be assessed against the framework of the three scholars that have been presented above.

Originally published on November 10,2008 at 5Spaniards and reproduced here with the author’s permission.