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Contrasting profiles in hope

By Anthony Scioli

I have made a career of studying hope. As a clinical psychologist most of my focus has been on the role of hope in relation to anxiety and depression, or the healing power of hope when confronting a serious illness. As a result of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign of “hope and change,” I have increasingly been asked to comment on the role of hope in presidential politics. In 2010, I decided to do some research on hope and the presidency to see what I might learn. I am revisiting the topic in this blog as we approach the 2012 election and Romney pits his own message of “optimism” and “change” against that of the president.

Barack Obama "Hope" poster by Shepard Fairey.
The major study conducted by my research team focused on the last ten elected presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, five Republicans and five Democrats. We wanted to find out how much and what kind of hope these men offered in their first (or only) inaugural address. More recently, we decided to supplement our research by looking at the amount and kind of hope expressed in Mitt Romney’s 2003 inaugural address when he became governor of Massachusetts.

Presidential inaugural speeches were studied years ago by David Winter at the University of Michigan to explore the motives of US presidents (he studied power, achievement, and affiliation). Winter was able to relate the motive profiles of each president to their behavior in office. Could “hope profiles” yield the same or even higher levels of predictive power?

Hope is based on four great needs: attachment (trust and openness), mastery (empowerment and purpose), survival (liberation and self-regulation), and spirituality (empowerment, connection, and assurance via a higher power).

Using with this integrative perspective, my research team (Kristen Wallin, Daniel Graham, and Sarah Stevenson) spent six months in 2010 developing a scoring system to measure the levels and kinds of hope contained in a sample of text. In other words, we created scoring rules to identify themes of hopeful mastery, attachment, survival, and spirituality. As part of the process we broke down each of these four dimensions of hope into the following more basic sub-units.


  • Plans: The president promises successful planning and goal setting.
  • Collaboration: The president commits to collaborate and/or encourages a spirit of teamwork.
  • Higher Goals: The president calls for the pursuit of higher goals, ideals or transcendent values.


  • Trust: The president and administration will be trustworthy and honest.
  • Continued presence: The president promises to be inclusive and engaged with the public.
  • Openness: The president invites public feedback; the administration will be transparent.


  • Protection/liberation: The president promises to protect or liberate.
  • Resilience: The president notes the resilience of the American people.
  • Fear reduction: The president uses words to calm the public or assuage fears.


  • Spiritual inspiration: The president invokes a higher power to empower or justify actions.
  • Spiritual presence: The president suggests a higher power is continually present.
  • Spiritual assurance: The president appeals to a higher power for protection of the nation.

Highlights of 2010 Findings

Obama scored highest in total hope with 32 themes. This was an interesting finding given that we were able to empirically validate Obama’s platform of hope and change via his inaugural speech. Nixon ranked first in attachment. While this may appear ironic to casual observers of the presidency, more in-depth psychological studies of Nixon have unearth the strong role of frustrated attachment needs in his background. Kennedy ranked highest in themes of survival. Obama ranked second. This is significant because we found that survival was the type of hope most strongly associated with historian’s rankings of presidential greatness. Perhaps this is because some of our greatest presidents have ushered the nation through great crises (e.g. Lincoln or FDR). GW Bush ranked first in Spiritual hope. This was also not surprising given his documented efforts to “integrate faith with public policy at the most practical level”, including the establishment of “faith-based” initiatives”.

We also created “hope profiles” for each president based on the amount of attachment, mastery, survival, and spiritual content in their speech. These profiles proved to be a good fit with the kind of policy initiatives each president undertook during their time in office.

For example, it was noted that Kennedy had the highest survival score. In particular, he relied on many themes of liberation. In his inaugural address he vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” For much of his presidency, Kennedy’s focus was on liberation abroad. In the Bay of Pigs, the intent was the liberation of Cuba. In Vietnam, the aim was to curtail the perceived loss of liberty from spreading Communism. Kennedy, hesitant at first, eventually put his political resources behind the Civil Rights Movement to liberate minorities.

Ronald Reagan ranked third in mastery (he was high in idealism, moderate in both mastery and collaboration). He ranked third in survival, focusing on themes of protection/liberation and resilience. Political observers pay respect to Reagan’s optimistic vision for America. His stress on personal freedom spanned both domestic and foreign policies. He championed a return to “rugged individualism” and promised to get big government “off our backs”. He railed against the Soviet “evil empire”, culminating in his speech on the Berlin Wall, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Romney’s Hope Profile

Earlier this month, we repeated our method of having two raters on different ends of the political spectrum score a speech sample. This time we scored Romney’s inaugural address as governor. We explored how Romney’s hope scores would compare with the past ten elected presidents. We also went back to see which of the past nine presidents were most similar to Obama.

Romney’s 20.5 themes of hope put him in sixth place, tied with GWH Bush. His 13 mastery themes put him in second place, right behind Obama. His 3.5 attachment themes put him in the eighth spot. Romney’s three survival themes put him in a tie for eighth place with Carter and Johnson. His single spiritual reference would put him in a tie for fifth place. In summary, Romney’s hope profile consists of high mastery, low attachment, low survival, and moderate spirituality.

Obama vs. Romney: Hope for mastery

Romney’s mastery profile (high planning, high collaboration, zero higher goals) is most similar to Clinton. Neither has ever been accused of being an ideologue. Obama’s mastery score (high planning, high collaboration, high higher goals) is most similar to Reagan. Interesting both Obama and Reagan ran on explicit platforms of hope or optimism.

Obama vs. Romney: Hope for attachment

Romney’s attachment score was similar to that of GHW Bush (low to moderate trust). Obama’s was closest to Carter (high trust). Many readers will recall the night that GHW Bush looked at his watch during the presidential debate with Clinton which reinforced the stereotype of an “out of touch” leader. Carter, despite many criticisms of his policies, has always rated high in integrity in presidential surveys. Romney has been characterized as distant and “walled off” by fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. Obama began as a community organizer and has been both praised and criticized for his effort to “reach across the aisle”.

Obama vs. Romney: Hope for survival

Romney’s survival score is most similar to Johnson (low protection, high resilience, zero fear reduction). Obama’s was closest to Kennedy (high protection, high resilience, moderate fear reduction). Johnson‘s primary goal was to stay the course after Kennedy’s assassination. Romney’s former business associates have praised his cool, efficient handling of crises. In the final presidential debate, Romney also appeared to endorse a strategy of “staying the course” in foreign policy. Kennedy came into power at the height of the cold war and fears of encroaching Communism. Obama came into power in the midst of a global recession and two wars against terrorism.

Obama vs. Romney: Hope through spirituality

Romney’s spirituality score was unique in that he was the only one in our sample whose single reference to God or a higher power did not revolve around empowerment but instead referenced continued presence. Obama’s spirituality score was most similar to Eisenhower (high empowerment). One possible interpretation of these findings is that Romney has had a close and deep involvement with the Mormon Church for decades while Obama’s combination of documented paternal estrangement and more diffuse spiritual foundation leads him to invoke higher powers primarily for empowerment purposes.

Speculating on a Romney Presidency

An abrupt political shift is likely. In terms of attachment hope, Romney was most similar to GHW Bush and Bill Clinton. Interestingly, these are also the two leaders that Eleanor Clift compared to Romney in her recent piece on how he might govern. She and her sources suggest that Romney might either move to the center like a “Republican Bill Clinton” or similar to Bush senior, detaching while trying to fashion a patchwork of policies to hold together disparate parts of his party.

I agree with Clift that whether Romney moves center or stays right may depend on how much control Republicans gain in the November election and how much leverage the right will have to push him. Here is my guess. Whatever happens, Romney will remain detached. If Republicans hold or gain more power in the house, he will quickly move right, not from any sense of party affiliation but because it is strategically the best move. If Democrats gain power, he will abruptly move to the center. Like Bush senior and Clinton his push for trust was in the bottom half of the sample. In addition, while both Bush senior and Clinton had at least one reference to hope based on secular “continued presence”, Romney had none.

Grand new programs are unlikely. Romney has been a lifelong businessman. In his approach to running the state of Massachusetts, Romney was dubbed the commonwealth’s first “CEO Governor”. The country is in a slow recovery from a brutal recession. Much of the focus is now on what the country can or cannot retain or sustain, and not what can be added. In fact, some have suggested that the Democratic clarion call, which was once “yes we can” has become “no you won’t” (cut programs). Equally significant, transcendent is just not part of Romney’s hope profile. His “hope for mastery” is built on planning and collaborating, not operating as a visionary. Romney’s spirituality is framed around a sense of continued presence, not support for higher goals.

Major cuts are very likely. When Romney took over in Massachusetts, the state was facing a deficit of more than a billion dollars. Forced by state law to balance the budget, Romney made deep cuts in Medicaid, Education, and other state office payrolls. If he were elected president, he would similarly face a large deficit, concerns about sustaining entitlement programs, funding the military, and the nation’s ambivalence towards healthcare reform. Again, Romney’s “hope for survival” is based on resilience, not protection or fear reduction. His spirituality is grounded in presence, not reducing anxiety. I would expect major cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, and challenges to social security as well as attempts to significantly pare down Obamacare. However, I would also be surprised if Romney increased military spending as he has suggested. I sense that his focus on resilience and “inner strength” might lead him away from expenditures to sustain “strength abroad” and a greater interest in internal national security.

Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. He is the co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety with Henry Biller. Dr. Scioli completed Harvard fellowships in human motivation and behavioral medicine. He co-authored the chapter on emotion for the Encyclopedia of Mental Health and currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

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Image credit: Barack Obama “Hope” poster by Shepard Fairey (via Wikimedia Commons) used for the purposes of illustration.

Recent Comments

  1. […] For left brain spiritual development reflect on your spiritual type. Spiritual needs and passions will flow from your particular type. Are you a mystic seeking a sense of oneness? Are you a follower seeking structure? Are you an independent seeking support for a chosen path? Are you a collaborator looking to join forces with a powerful other? Are you a sufferer who seeks comfort? Are you a reformer seeking justice? For right brain spiritual development, I would review your list of favorite songs and find one or two that match up with your spiritual type and play them often in 2013. You can find music consistent with your particular religious affiliation that will nevertheless address your particular spiritual type. Here are six suggestions: For independent types: the Chariots of Fire theme; for followers, “Amazing Grace”; for collaborators, “Lord of the Dance”; for mystics, “Unchained Melody”; for sufferers, “Let It Be” (the Beatles); for reformers, “A Change is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke). Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College. He is the co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety with Henry Biller. Dr. Scioli completed Harvard fellowships in human motivation and behavioral medicine. He co-authored the chapter on emotion for the Encyclopedia of Mental Health and currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Read his previous blog articles: “Why spring is the season of hope” and “Contrasting profiles in hope.” […]

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