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The Political Personality of 2020

Democratic Vice-Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris

September 1, 2020

A psychological analysis of U.S. senator Kamala Harris — Democratic vice-presidential nominee in the 2020 U.S. presidential election — by Anne Marie Griebie, Yitao Zhang, and Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics revealed that Sen. Harris’s primary personality pattern is Dominant/asserting, complemented by secondary Ambitious/confident and Outgoing/congenial patterns. Typologically, Harris may be characterized as a high-dominance charismatic.

Presidential Electability Index range: 22-36


Click on image for larger view

Abstract

The poster presents the the results of an indirect assessment of the personality of U.S. senator Kamala Harris, Democratic vice-presidential nominee in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, from the conceptual perspective of personologist Theodore Millon.

Psychodiagnostically relevant data about Harris were collected from biographical sources and media reports and synthesized into a personality profile using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), which yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications congruent with DSM-III-R, DSM-IV, and DSM-5.

The personality profile yielded by the MIDC was analyzed in accordance with interpretive guidelines provided in the MIDC and Millon Index of Personality Styles manuals. Harris’s primary personality pattern was found to be Dominant/asserting (a measure of aggressiveness), complemented by secondary Ambitious/confident and Outgoing/congenial patterns — measures of narcissism and extraversion, respectively.

In summary, Harris’s personality composite can be characterized as high-dominance charismatic — charismatic by virtue of the elevated Ambitious–Outgoing amalgam.

Dominant individuals enjoy the power to direct others and to evoke obedience and respect; they are tough and unsentimental and often make effective leaders. Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and sometimes act as though entitled. Outgoing individuals are dramatic attention-getters who thrive on being the center of social events, go out of their way to be popular with others, and have confidence in their social abilities.

Harris’s major personality strengths in a political role are her confident assertiveness and personal charisma. Her major personality-based shortcoming is likely to be a predisposition to occasional lapses in emotional restraint or self-discipline.


Research paper

The Political Personality of 2020 Vice-Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, September 2020. Abstract and link for full-text (26 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/131/


Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as VP candidate ‘unprecedented’ (William Roberts, Al Jazeera, Aug. 11, 2020) — Biden is an outgoing and accommodating personality, which should allow him to mesh well with Harris, said Aubrey Immelman, a professor of political psychology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. His deliberation and thoughtful process suggest Biden was able to develop “personal chemistry” with her. It is quite likely as well that Harris’s friendship with Biden’s late son Beau also helped. And she may well have been a consensus pick among his close advisers, including his wife Jill Biden, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama. “Metaphorically, Biden is led more by ‘heart’ than by ‘head’,” Immelman told Al Jazeera.



The Political Personality of 2020

Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden

August 18, 2020

A psychological analysis of former U.S. vice president Joe Biden — Democratic nominee in the 2020 U.S. presidential election — by Anne Marie Griebie, Kiara Westendorf, Yitao Zhang, and Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics revealed that Vice President Biden’s primary personality pattern is Outgoing/gregarious, complemented by a secondary Accommodating/cooperative pattern and subsidiary Ambitious/confident features. Typologically, Biden may be characterized as a conciliatory extravert with an interpersonal leadership style.

Presidential Electability Index range: 21-33


Click on image for larger view

Abstract

The poster presents the results of an indirect assessment of the personality of former U.S. vice president Joe Biden, Democratic nominee in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, from the conceptual perspective of personologist Theodore Millon.

Psychodiagnostically relevant data about Biden were collected from biographical sources and media reports and synthesized into a personality profile using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), which yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications congruent with DSM-III-R, DSM-IV, and DSM-5.

The personality profile yielded by the MIDC was analyzed on the basis of interpretive guidelines provided in the MIDC and Millon Index of Personality Styles manuals. Biden’s primary personality pattern was found to be Outgoing/gregarious, complemented by a secondary Accommodating/cooperative pattern and subsidiary Ambitious/confident features.

The prominence of the Outgoing pattern, in conjunction with a distinctive Accommodating pattern in his overall personality configuration, is indicative of the conciliatory extravert subtype. This personality composite provides the personological substrate for a strong affiliation motive. These individuals are driven to seek approval; they want others to like them and view them as a friend or ally. To achieve that motivational goal, they often compliment, praise, or flatter others, presenting an image of goodwill. When disagreements occur, they attempt to smooth things over, sometimes at the cost of conceding.

Leaders with Biden’s personality profile are likely to exhibit an interpersonal leadership style, characterized by flexibility, compromise, and an emphasis on teamwork. The general tenor of a Biden presidency likely will be conciliatory, which could render a prospective President Biden vulnerable to manipulation by pressure groups and handicap him in negotiations or conflicts with foreign adversaries.

 


Research paper

The Political Personality of 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, August 2020. Abstract and link for full-text (22 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/130/



Annie Griebie briefly explains the conceptual framework, methodology, and results of her assessment of Vice President Joe Biden’s personality and leadership style. (9:42)


 

Related reports

Projecting the Winner of the 2020 Presidential Election: The Personal Electability Index (July 8, 2019)

Donald Trump

Presidential Electability Index

Range: 65-77 (71 ±6); dysfunctionality adjusted = 45

 

Joe Biden

Presidential Electability Index

Range: 16-29 (22.5 ±6.5) / Revised Aug. 2020: 21-33 (27 ±6)

 

The Personality Profile of Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (April 25, 2019)


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Joe Biden’s Second Act? 2020 “Ridin’ with Biden” (May 31, 2017)


Aug 15th, 2020


Psychological Profile Presented at ISPP 2020 Annual Meeting

U.S. President Donald J. Trump


Aubrey Immelman presents his paper, with Anne Marie Griebie, on “The Personality Profile and Leadership Style of U.S. President Donald J. Trump in Office” at the 43rd Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, July 16, 2020. The meeting, originally scheduled for Berlin, Germany, was conducted in virtual format due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.


Annie Griebie explains the scoring system used in the assessment of President Donald Trump’s personality as revealed in office.

Research report

The Personality Profile and Leadership Style of U.S. President Donald J. Trump in Office. Paper presented at the 43rd Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Berlin, Germany, July 14-16, 2020. Abstract and link for full-text (71 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/129/

Related presentations


Annie Griebie briefly explains the conceptual framework, methodology, and results of her assessment of President Donald Trump’s personality as revealed in office. (9:39)


Click on image for larger view

More information » U.S. President Donald J. Trump

 


 

Related reports

USPP-Website_header

The Political Personality of 2016 Republican Presidential Nominee Donald J. Trump. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, October 2016 (Paper presented at the 41st Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, San Antonio, TX, July 4-7, 2018). Abstract and link for full-text (31 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/103/

The Leadership Style of U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, January 2017. Abstract and link for full-text (14 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/107/



Rumors are swirling on the internet that Kim Jong-un is in a vegetative state or has died as the result of a botched cardiac procedure; however, there has been no confirmation of these reports by official government agencies or reliable sources.

38 North reports:

A train probably belonging to Kim Jong Un has been parked at the Leadership Railway Station servicing his Wonsan compound since at least April 21, according to commercial satellite imagery. The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast.

April 26, 2020 Update: Dynastic Succession in North Korea

Anna Fifield, Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing and author of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un provides an informative analysis of the prospects for dynastic succession or continuity of governance in the event of Kim Jong-un’s death.

If Kim turns out to be fine, it would hardly be the first time that reports of the death of a North Korean leader had been greatly exaggerated. Japanese and South Korean newspapers killed off his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, multiple times in the years before either man actually died.

Kim Jong Un’s premature demise was also reported in 2014, when his disappearance from public view for six weeks sparked talk of death by military coup, heart attack, or excessive cheese consumption. …

What if Kim Jong Un dies? There is no clear successor for him. …

April 28, 2020 Update: Medical Opinion by Kenneth B. Dekleva, M.D.

[Kim Jong Un’s] absence now is of notable concern, given multiple reports about Kim having received some form of cardiac surgery and possibly suffering from subsequent complications. While these reports remain unconfirmed, the security consequences of Kim’s sudden demise or incapacitation could be enormous, given the lack of clarity on what comes next. …

I am Kim’s heart: The health status of Chairman Kim Jong Un
(Kenneth B. Dekleva, 38 North, April 28, 2020)

April 29, 2020 Update: Imagery Shows Train at Kim Jong Un’s Wonsan Compound Again

38 North reports:

Commercial satellite imagery from April 29 shows a train at the leadership train station that services Kim Jong Un’s compound in the coastal city of Wonsan. While a train was first observed at this station on April 21 and again on April 23, it cannot be determined whether it has remained at the station since then. On April 29, the train is situated in the same position as before. However, the engine is no longer parked alongside the south end of the train. Whether the engine car has departed or was simply moved under the station’s canopy is unclear. But in either case, the train does not appear to be prepared for departure.


Image: ©2020 Planet Labs, Inc. via 38 North.

May 1, 2020 Update: Does Kim Jong Un Have a Succession Plan?

Chris Steinitz, Ken Gause, and Elizabeth Yang offer an insightful analysis at 38 North of scenarios for succession and continuity of governance in the event of Kim Jong-un’s demise.

If the leader were merely incapacitated, the immediate, temporary structure would likely be led by a small group of family and close aides, who would make decisions along established lines, maintaining the status quo. This small collective would carry out the day-to-day affairs of the regime, not unlike the group that supported Kim Jong Il after his stroke in 2008.

If Kim Jong Un dies, however, the situation would become much more precarious. An initial leadership group would likely be set up that includes those above, as well as members from the Party, military, and internal security. Whether someone like Kim Yo Jong would sit atop this structure or would assume the role of Supreme Leader is unclear. It is also possible that some male member of the Kim family could be put forth as a figurehead for legitimacy purposes, instead of Kim Yo Jong.

May 2, 2020 Update: Kim Jong Un Resurfaces

The New York Times reports:

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public view on Friday, the North’s state news media reported Saturday, controverting three weeks of rumors and unconfirmed news reports that he was in grave danger after undergoing heart surgery. …

Mr. Kim, 36, had last appeared publicly on April 11. … Rumors subsequently went into overdrive, claiming that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger,” in a “vegetative state” after botched heart-valve surgery, or in quarantine after contracting Covid-19. Other reports said that China had sent doctors to Pyongyang to save him.

After its initial report on Saturday, the North Korean news agency released photos showing a smiling Mr. Kim applauding, cutting a ribbon, and standing with his hands behind his back at a new fertilizer factory.

Related links on this site

The Leadership Style of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (June 12, 2018)

North Korea Threat Assessment: The Psychological Profile of Kim Jong-un (April 8, 2013)



The 2020 U.S. presidential election-outcome forecast issued by the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics on July 8, 2019, anticipated the surprising Super Tuesday Democratic primary results, with a surging Joe Biden defying polls and political pundits to seize the lead from an ascendant Bernie Sanders in the battle for the Democratic nomination for president.

The Presidential Electability Index (PEI), which has accurately predicted — before Super Tuesday — the outcome of every presidential election since 1996, was developed to forecast general election outcomes; however, the PEI heuristic model (which employs publicly perceived candidate personality traits as the predictor variable) proved to be exceptionally robust in projecting Biden’s unexpected Super Tuesday surge.

As conceptualized by the Personal Electability Index (PEI) forecasting model, Democratic contenders studied in the 2020 presidential election cycle and still in the race rank as follows in terms of predicted political impact as a general election candidate:

1. Joe Biden

Presidential Electability Index

Range: 22-33 (27.5 ±5.5)

 

2. Bernie Sanders

Presidential Electability Index

Range: 16-23 (19.5 ±3.5)

 

3. Elizabeth Warren

Presidential Electability Index

Range: 6-8 (7 ±1)

 

Executive summary

The Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics’ PEI model ranks Biden as more competitive than Sanders in a hypothetical general election matchup against Donald Trump.

Evidently — as suggested by the Super Tuesday Democratic primary results — Biden’s personal characteristics also had a stronger impact on Democratic primary voters than did Sanders’.

 


PEI Scores for Democratic and Republican Nominees, 1996-2016

For historical context, here are the personality-based electability scores for all major-party nominees since 1996, published before Super Tuesday in presidential election years, with the successful candidate listed first:


 

Topical research reports

The Political Personality of Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, December 2019. Abstract and link for full-text (21 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/122/

The Political Personality of 2020 Democratic Presidential Contender Bernie Sanders. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, March 2020. Abstract and link for full-text (24 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/126/

 


 

Related reports

The Personality Profile of Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (April 25, 2019)


Click on image for larger view

Joe Biden’s Second Act? 2020 “Ridin’ with Biden” (May 31, 2017)

Projecting the Winner of the 2016 Presidential Election: The Personal Electability Index (Feb. 29, 2016)



Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was the only member of the Republican Party to vote with Democratic senators to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power in a 52-48 not guilty vote after harshly criticizing Trump in his Senate floor speech announcing his intended vote.

Romney asserted that “the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor”; accused him of being “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust” for what he called “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security, and our fundamental values”; and concluded that “corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office” that he could imagine.

This was not the first time Romney publicly lambasted Trump. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post a year earlier, Romney wrote that Trump had “not risen to the mantle of the office,” adding that a president “should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.”

Similarly, Romney sharply rebuked the president’s actions outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, saying, “I am sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the president,” implying Trump had “strayed from the aspirations and principles of the founders.”

Granted, motives can be complex and difficult to discern, yet Romney’s personality profile offers at least a partial glimpse into his underlying motivation for bucking the GOP party line with his impeachment vote.

A psychological study of Mitt Romney conducted at the Unit for the Study of Politics during Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign revealed that “Romney’s primary personality pattern was … Conscientious/dutiful, complemented by secondary Dominant/asserting, Ambitious/confident, and Accommodating/cooperative features and a minor Retiring/reserved tendency” and characterized him as quintessentially “prudent, proper, dignified, dependable, and more principled than most personality types.”

Regarding his primary personality pattern of conscientiousness, Romney’s political-psychological profile depicts him as a principled person who does his best to uphold conventional rules and standards and to follow regulations closely, with a tendency to be intolerant of deviance and judgmental of those fail to adhere to those norms.

As stated in Romney’s profile, conscientious individuals “tend to follow standards from which they hesitate to deviate, attempt to act in an objective and rational manner, and decide matters in terms of what they believe is right.” They are often religious, and maintaining their integrity “ranks high among their goals” while “voicing moral values gives them a deep sense of satisfaction.”

As Romney asserted in his Senate floor speech:

As a senator-juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.

In summary, Romney’s personality profile contains the following observations across the matrix of attribute domains comprising his overall personality composite:

  • Expressive behavior: scrupulous in matters of morality and ethics, but may strike others as prudish, moralistic, and condescending. (p. 11)
  • Interpersonal conduct: unbending in his relations with subordinates [which Trump arguably embodies in his capacity as a defendant in an impeachment trial], insisting they adhere to personally established rules and methods. (p. 11)
  • Cognitive style: concerned with matters of propriety and tends to be rigid about regulations and procedures. (p. 11)
  • Mood/temperament: dignified, serious minded, solemn demeanor. (p. 12)
  • Self-image: values aspects of himself that exhibit virtue and moral rectitude. (p. 12)
  • Morphologic organization/ego-defense mechanism: public facade of conformity and propriety may mask an undercurrent of repressed urges toward self-assertion and defiance. (p. 13)

Finally, the section on leadership implications in the report of Romney’s political personality concludes that, in his policy choices, consensus building likely plays a secondary role to the implementation of the “morally correct” policy. (p. 17)

Objective assessment of the psychological motives underlying Romney’s “guilty” impeachment vote dictates that he was simply acting in character and in accordance with his deeply held personal and religious values. However, that determination belies the probability that some of Romney’s Republican Senate colleagues possess a similar personality profile and set of values.

What, then, could account for Romney’s dissenting vote?

One clue may be implicit in Trump’s public humiliation of Romney, whom the president called “a pompous ‘ass’” who had been “fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run … and when he begged me to be Secretary of State.”

In that regard, it’s notable that Romney’s personality profile is suggestive of an individual more likely to nurse grudges than most. From that perspective, an alternative explanation for Romney’s vote might be that he gave the president a taste of his own kind of quid pro quo.

 


Cited report

The Political Personality of 2012 Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. Paper presented by Aubrey Immelman at the 35th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Chicago, July 6–9, 2012. Abstract and link for full-text (35 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/98/


 

Related reports on this site

What Motivates Mitt Romney to Question Donald Trump’s Character? (Jan. 3, 2019)

Romney poster (2013)
Click on image for larger view

Mitt Romney Announces Bid for U.S. Senate in Utah (Feb. 17, 2018)

Embedded video

Mitt Romney for Secretary of State? (Nov. 19, 2016)

Mitt Romney’s Personality Profile (June 2, 2011)


As shown in the pie chart, Romney has a primarily Conscientious-dutiful personality, complemented by secondary Dominant-asserting, Ambitious-confident, and Accommodating-cooperative features and a minor Retiring-reserved tendency.

Mitt Romney’s Leadership Style (Sept. 3, 2012)


Research assistants Amanda Nusbaum and Feiran Chen presented their research on “The Personality Profile of 2012 Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney” at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., July 30, 2012.

Why Mitt Romney Won’t Be President — In Theory (Oct. 29, 2012)


Aubrey Immelman and Andrew Obritsch in Chicago at the annual scientific meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology to present their research on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, July 2012.


Feb 4th, 2020

CNN reports:

There’s no result yet from last night’s all-important, first-in-the-nation, election season-opening Iowa caucuses. … A vote-reporting debacle has delayed results in the contest, leaving candidates and voters furious and precincts scrambling to come up with answers. Officials from two Democratic campaigns say they were told an app used to tabulate the votes crashed, and the Iowa Democratic Party said it found inconsistencies in some vote sets.

In the absence of official election results 12 hours after the caucuses, I examined the Google Analytics report of visits to the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics pages for Democratic presidential contenders in the 7 days up to and including the Iowa caucuses (Jan. 28–Feb. 3, 2020).


            Note: Biden’s page (/joe-biden) ranked 20th in USPP page visits
 

Descriptive analytics for Iowa caucus contenders
 

1.  Bernie Sanders

      220 page visits (52.1%)
 
      Note: 170 (2016 page) plus 50 (2020 page)
 

2.  Elizabeth Warren

      74 page visits (17.5%)
 
 
 

3.  Pete Buttigieg

      56 page visits (13.3%)
 
 
 

4.  Amy Klobuchar

      50 page visits (11.9%)
 
 
 

5.  Joe Biden

      22 page visits (5.2%)
 
 
 


 

Update: February 7, 2020

Pete Buttigieg keeps narrow lead in Iowa caucuses with 100% of precincts reporting (Dan Merica, Jeff Zeleny, and Adam Levy, CNN, Feb. 6, 2020) — Pete Buttigieg holds a slim lead over Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses with the Iowa Democratic Party announcing on Thursday night [Feb. 6] that 100% of precincts are reporting. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor leads the Vermont senator by one-tenth of one percentage point in the all-important state delegate equivalent count. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are trailing behind Buttigieg and Sanders. The Democratic candidates have until 1 p.m. ET/12 p.m. CT on Friday to file a request for a recanvass or a recount. If there are no challenges by that time, CNN plans to report a winner. … Full report



How will President Trump respond to Iranian retaliation for the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani?

The two guiding principles of behavioral forecasting based on psychological profiling are:

  1. Personality directs — and therefore predicts — behavior.
  2. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Based on (1) empirical studies of Donald Trump’s personality profile and leadership style conducted at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics and (2) rational-intuitive inference derived from President Trump’s observed behavior in office, the following general expectancies present themselves with reference to Trump’s likely response to Iran’s anticipated retaliation for the targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Key personality traits driving President Trump’s behavior

Donald Trump is bold, self-assured, and levelheaded under pressure and in the face of adversity; is a dramatic attention‑getter more inclined to precipitous action than to indecision; enjoys the power to take charge, evoke respect, and seeing that the job gets done; is tough, competitive, and unsentimental; and is willing to flout tradition, acting autonomously in accordance with his personal goals and preferences.

Relevant indicators from President Trump’s past behavior

Donald Trump prides himself on “promises made, promises kept” and completing projects on- or ahead of schedule; is motivated to extricate the United States from “endless wars”; is driven to project military power to buttress U.S. prestige and national security; and is generally explicit in stating his intent.

General expectancies for President Trump’s response to Iranian reprisal

  • President Trump is highly unlikely to order a full-scale war such as George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War (1991) or George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).
  • President Trump is unlikely to escalate the current standoff with Iran in the absence of revenge operations by the Iranian regime or its proxies.
  • President Trump is likely to respond proportionately to Iranian retaliation outside the United States, provided no U.S. nationals are harmed (but may incrementally escalate counterattacks if revenge attacks persist).
  • President Trump is likely to respond disproportionately to Iranian retaliation outside the United States if U.S. nationals are killed or injured.
  • President Trump is likely to respond with overwhelming force to attacks by Iran or its proxies within the United States or its territories.

———————————————

Update: January 9, 2020

Trump backs away from further military conflict with Iran (Peter Baker, New York Times, Jan. 8, 2020) — President Trump backed away from further military action against Iran and called for renewed diplomacy on Wednesday as the bristling confrontation of the past six days eased in the aftermath of an Iranian missile strike that seemed intended to save face rather than inflict casualties. … The president’s statement came hours after Iran’s government indicated that it had “concluded proportionate measures” avenging the killing of the commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, with the launch of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing American troops. The missiles did not result in any American or Iraqi deaths, an outcome interpreted by some analysts as a deliberate attempt by Iran to claim it had responded, but without provoking Mr. Trump. …



On December 14 the New York Times reported:

A second test [at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station] of what appeared to be an advanced missile engine, part of what North Korea said on Saturday was part of a “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent,” left little doubt that the country is moving quickly toward resuming the program that led to a crisis with Washington two years ago. … It was the second such test in a week, and came after weeks of increasingly vocal attempts to press the United States into further talks and new concessions. … American analysts and intelligence experts said they believe the ground test … was intended as a signal that the country could soon resume testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Analysts have speculated an ICBM test might occur after the end of December, a deadline Kim Jong-un imposed for the U.S. to resume negotiations and provide sanctions relief.

In its report, the New York Times quotes Pak Jong-chon, chief of the general staff of the North Korean People’s Army, as saying: “We should be ready to cope with political and military provocations of the hostile forces, and be familiar with both dialogue and confrontation” and that the U.S. and its allies would “spend the year-end in peace only when they hold off any words and deeds rattling us” — signaling that amid stalled diplomacy “the voice of North Korea’s hard-line military was rising,” according to Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of research planning at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

In conjunction with the North Korean foreign ministry’s veiled threat in early December that North Korea was preparing a surprise “Christmas gift” for the United States, the latest rhetoric emanating from the DPRK sounds ominous.

Left: Image of King Tongmyong from a North Korean book. Right: Image of Kim Jong-un, courtesy of KCNA. (Photo composite by Jean Lee / The Wilson Center)

 

Analysis: How should the U.S. respond?

  1. In planning its response, the U.S. should exercise caution in ascertaining the personal policy preferences of Kim Jong-un and distinguishing between that and the intent of hardliners in the DPRK military establishment.
  2. To the extent that Kim is losing ground in his grip on power vis-à-vis the top military leadership, the U.S. could strengthen Kim’s hand by giving due consideration to the resumption of personal diplomacy between the two nations’ leaders as a complement to the continuation of working-level talks.
  3. It would be prudent to delay any significant response or intervention until after evaluating the tone, and learning more about the details, of Kim’s policy options in his annual New Year’s Day speech.
  4. In the context of the central role of personal diplomacy in the US-DPRK nuclear negotiations, consider that with the specter of impeachment and the uncertainty of Donald Trump’s reelection as president, Kim might be reluctant to strike a deal at the present juncture, preferring to adopt a wait-and-see attitude; thus, it would be prudent to exercise patience and avoid any abrupt policy reversals.

—————————————————————————

One-month follow-up — January 31, 2020

The Many Faces of Chairman Kim Jong Un


Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju ride a white horse on Mt. Paektu (Photo: KCNA)

Commentary by Kenneth B. Dekleva, M.D.

January 30, 2020

Excerpts

At the recent December 2019 plenum, Chairman Kim, rather than giving his traditional New Year’s speech, outlined a different strategy toward the US moving forward in 2020. … Kim’s strategic shift portends not only political, military and diplomatic changes, but also offers clues as to his evolving leadership style, intentions and flexibility as he begins his ninth year in power. …

Chairman Kim has shown restraint and patience. He has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resumed nuclear testing—nor is he likely to do so, although a public “display” of a new ICBM or ballistic missile submarine is not out of the question.

Rather, Kim has carefully allowed his subordinates to give lip service to a “Christmas gift,” and he has substituted strategic ambiguity for his previously demonstrated (during 2018) nuclear opacity. Doing so highlights his strategic sensibility, patience and evolving maturity as a leader. Importantly, while disappointed (and likely humiliated) by his failure to achieve sanctions relief at the 2019 Hanoi Summit with US President Donald Trump, Chairman Kim has refrained from attacking the president personally. …

Kim remains an aspirational leader, even as the DPRK’s diplomacy is likely to shift—given the replacement of Ri Yong Ho and appointment of Ri Son Gwon (a military hardliner and protégé of Kim Yong Chol) as foreign minister—to a more muscular, hard-nosed version. And Kim, rather than acting impulsively to provoke an unpredictable President Trump, has surely taken measure of America’s current impeachment drama, the upcoming American presidential election, and Trump’s recent show of resolve with respect to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force leader General Soleimani, as well as the signing of the China trade deal. Kim is patiently waiting—with a tendency to avoid unnecessary political risks—knowing that, if Trump were to serve another four years, time is on his and the DPRK’s side. …

Full commentary

 


Related media reports

North Korea promises a Christmas surprise. Here are the options
(Geoff Brumfiel, NPR, Dec. 23, 2019)


Experts worry that North Korea may be about to test an advanced solid-fuel missile. (Photo: Wong Maye-E / AP via NPR)

U.S. on high alert for possible ‘Christmas gift’ missile from North Korea
(Bradford Betz, Fox News, Dec. 23, 2019)

What is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘Christmas gift’ for Donald Trump? (Erin Handley, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dec. 24, 2019)


Related research reports

The Leadership Style of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minn., June 10, 2018. Abstract and link for full-text (17 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/120/

Titles_KJU

The Personality Profile of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Working paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minn., April 1, 2018. Abstract and link for full-text (32 pages; PDF) download at Digital Commons: https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/psychology_pubs/119/


Related links on this site

The Leadership Style of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (June 12, 2018)


Photo credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

North Korea Threat Assessment: The Psychological Profile of Kim Jong-un (April 8, 2013)


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Related interest

Kim Jong-un’s 2019 New Year’s Message