Understanding Continuity and Change in US Counterterrorism Policy: from Bush to Obama

© Eva Mowat

When the American presidency passed from George W. Bush (2001-2009) to Barak Obama (2009-2017), there was great optimism that Obama would incite change in the controversial foreign policy approaches fostered by the Bush administration (Jackson, 2011).

Indeed, Obama’s election campaign was largely built on this rhetoric of change (McCrisken, 2011): during his inaugural address he “swept away eight years of President George Bush’s false choices and failed policies and promised to recommit to America’s most cherished ideals” (McCrisken, 2011:785). Furthermore, Bush and Obama were seen to be very different people – Bush was a conservative Republican from a privileged Texan background, while Obama was a more liberal Democrat with a multi-national upbringing. However, despite this initial optimism, academic reflections on Obama’s time in office demonstrate a high degree of continuity between his foreign policy approaches and that of his predecessor (Holland, 2013; McCrisken, 2011). This begs the question as to how different Obama and Bush really are; a question that this essay seeks to investigate through ‘at-a-distance’ psychological assessment.

In attempting to explain continuity in the foreign policy approaches of the Bush and Obama administrations, this essay shall firstly conduct a Leadership Trait Analysis (LTA), before examining the congruence between the leaders’ personalities and foreign policy decisions on the premise that “individual characteristics of major international figures can have important impacts on policy outcomes” (Dyson, 2006:290). Due to the narrow scope of this essay, it shall focus on those decisions surrounding the ‘war on terror’ – this was characteristic of the Bush administration and necessarily inherited by Obama (Holland, 2013) – with specific focus on policy changes concerning Guantanamo Bay and the use of enhanced interrogation methods. These were perhaps the most controversial elements of the Bush era and are currently not discussed in depth in existing LTA research.

Overall, this essay shall argue that continuities between Bush and Obama’s policy approaches to the ‘war on terror’ were not for their lack of personality differences. Although continuities can partly be explained by their shared beliefs about the nature of terrorist threat – displayed by their equally high distrust of others – it is also important to consider contextual factors which occasionally prevented Obama from implementing those changes he sought.


This essay shall conduct a Leadership Trait Analysis (LTA) for both Bush and Obama; a form of at-a-distance assessment developed by Margaret Hermann (2005a), who posits that leaders’ personalities can be deduced from their public rhetoric. Indeed, by coding leader’s speech on the assumption that “the more frequently leaders use certain words and phrases in their speeches, the more apparent and salient such content is to them” (Cuhadar et al., 2016:46), LTA seeks to provide information on seven leadership traits. These are: belief in the ability to control events (BACE), need for power (PWR), self-confidence (SC), conceptual complexity (CC), task orientation (TASK), in-group bias (IGB) and distrust of others (DIS) (Hermann, 2005a). A breakdown of what each of these traits mean substantively, along with their respective coding methods, can be found in Appendix 1. In order to increase the reliability of the results, this essay shall use Profiler Plus to run the LTA which reduces the incidence of human error (Walker, 2000).

LTA was selected as an appropriate method for this study because it allows for a nuanced, multifactorial analysis of the leaders’ beliefs and motivations. Indeed, following Hermann (2005a), the seven leadership traits can be analysed both in isolation and in combination in order to determine how leaders react to constriants on their leadership and contextual information, as well as what motivates them. A further advantage of using LTA is that it favours the use of spontaneous material, as opposed to the likes of Operational Code Analysis (OCA) which generally analyses leaders’ public speeches (Walker, Schafer and Young, 2005). Given that speeches are often strategic(Dyson, 2016), LTA’s use of spontaneous rhetoric allows us to ascertain whether the emphases on ‘change’ in Obama’s speeches were really reflective of his desire to reassess Bush’s policies concerning the ‘war on terror’. In this way, the use of spontaneous material increases the validity of the results. Indeed, various studies have found differences between scripted and spontaneous material with respect to the leadership scores they generate (Shannon and Keller, 2007; Dille and Young, 2000), and speeches are often written for leaders by members of their faculty (Hermann, 2005a). Winter (2011) has argued that this is not an issue when studying Obama’s speeches given his close relationship with his speech writer, Jon Favreau, however we do not have this kind of insight for all leaders, including George W. Bush. While there are drawbacks of using interview responses – for example, leaders are through to be more agreeable in this setting (Schafer and Crichlow, 2000) and selection bias can incur if the universe of responses are not analysed – they are believed to be far better reflection of the leaders’ personalities as they have to think on their feet and answer instinctively (Hermann, 2005a).

According to Hermann (2005a), the LTA should be based on at least fifty interview responses of over one hundred words or more in length. Furthermore, she recommends that the responses “should span the leaders’ tenure in office, as well as have occurred in different types of interview settings and should focus on a variety of topics” (2005:3-4). This increases the validity of the results by ensuring they are not context-specific (Hermann, 2005a). Following these guidelines, this study shall sample interview responses from both Bush and Obama that cover the length of their time in office, at regular intervals where data is available. The leaders’ speech was extracted from the data archives of ‘The American Presidency Project’ (2019) and consisted of interviews occurring in a variety of settings: from tv talk shows, to radio shows and even YouTube. This contextual variation sought to mitigate the audience effect. Although the interview responses that were sampled focused on foreign policy, they covered a variety of topics from counterterrorism to humanitarian intervention. This increases the generalisability of the results and the validity of the inferences that can be made about the leaders’ personality traits. Despite the variety of interview settings, topics, and time frame, the relative consistency with which the data were gathered allows the results of Bush and Obama to be compared since they are both being subjected to the same environments; how they react to these will be indicative of their individual personalities. Overall, approximately 15,000 words of spontaneous interview responses (around 70 responses) were analysed for each leader, on the premise that a large volume of data increases the validity of the results by reducing the skewing effects of impression management strategies and strategic deceptions (He and Feng, 2013).


Table 1

Leadership traitBushWorld Leaders mean (N=284)S.D.Z-scoreDescriptor
BACE0.330.350.05– 0.4Average
CC0.490.590.06– 1.67Low
TASK0.500.630.07– 1.86Low
IGB0. high

Table 2

Leadership traitObamaWorld Leaders mean (N=284)S.D.Z-scoreDescriptor
BACE0.390.350.050.80Leans high
PWR0.310.260.060.83Leans high
CC0.630.590.060.67Leans high
IGB0.140.150.05– 0.20Average

The norming group of 284 world leaders, complied by Derksen (2012), allows us to contextualise the profiles and see whether Bush and Obama score high or low on each trait. The Z-scores calculated for each of the traits correlates with the descriptors in the final column of the tables. Following Hermann (2005a), if the Z-score is higher than 1, then the leader is ‘high’ on that trait as their score is over one standard deviation higher than the mean of the norming group. The inverse is true for when the Z-score is lower than 1, meaning that their score is over one standard deviation below the mean of the norming group and they are compartively ‘low’ on that trait. The leaders’ scores are categorised as leaning high or low where they score above or below half a standard deviation of the norming group mean. If they do not, they are considered to be ‘average’ for a trait and similar to other world leaders. Drawing on previous LTA research, the results enable us to hypothesise the political behaviour of the leaders. This essay shall focus on analysing the most obvious similarities and differences between Bush and Obama.

Table 1 shows that Bush has a high score for SC. Such leaders are expected to be less responsive to information that contradicts their convictions and what they hold to be true (Shannon and Keller, 2007). Bush also has a low CC score, associated with “a black-and-white worldview”; founded on dichotomies between “us and them” and “good and evil” (Dyson, 2009:35). We would therefore expect Bush to be clear in his distinction between ‘terrorist’ and ‘non-terrorist’, with little scope for nuance. Indeed, leaders with low CC are expected to cling to entrenched beliefs and lack flexibility in the presence of competing evidence (Dyson, 2009). As Bush’s SC score is higher than his CC, we would expect him to be closed to contextual information and to reinterpret his environment in accordance with his own views of the world (Hermann, 2005a). Yang (2010) also found Bush to be low in CC.

Table 2 shows that Obama also has a high score for SC, but, crucially, he has a higher score for CC than Bush. According to Preston (2001), leaders with higher CC are likely to value the inputs of others in the decision-making process, particularly if those inputs pose a challenge their ideas. Such leaders are likely to have a more nuanced worldview than those with low conceptual complexity (Dyson, 2009), so we would expect Obama to be less stringent in dichotomising the world into ‘us’ and them’ compared to Bush. Because Obama’s score for CC is greater than his score for SC, we would expect him to be sensitive to contextual information and more flexible than Bush in his decision-making (Hermann, 2005a). Bush is also be more likely to suppress competing viewpoints amd circumnavigate constraints due to his higher score for PWR (Shannon and Keller, 2007). Furthermore, leaders open to contextual information are expected to be more pragmatic and accomodating of the interests of those to whome they are accountable (Keller, 2005).

Interestingly, Bush and Obama produced the exact same score for DIS (0.37) – this is suggestive of a continuous motive between them. Leaders who are high on distrust tend to view the world as full of potential threats which leads to “an enhanced willingness to use forceful policy instruments in order to neutralise these threats” (Shannon and Keller, 2007:84). We can therefore expect both Bush and Obama to be prepared to use forceful measures in their approach to the ‘war on terror’. Shannon and Keller (2007) have also found Bush to be high on this trait. However, Bush also has an IGB that leans higher than average. We would therefore expect Bush to be more likely than Obama to use force to protect national security interests, given that leaders with both high distrust and high in-group bias are expected to “take risks and to engage in highly aggressive behaviour” (Hermann, 2005a:28). Shannon and Keller (2007) further that leaders high on both traits are likely to view international norms as irrelevant to their actions.

Unexpectedly, Bush’s LTA produced a low score for TASK (Table 1), suggesting that he is motivated by interpersonal relations rather than achievements (Hermann, 2005a). Given that Bush frequently articulated that removing the terrorist threat was the primarly goal of his presidency (Renshon, 2005), this result may be considered an anomaly. This could be due to the use of interview responses for the LTA, as Bush may come across as more agreeable when seeking to build a rapport with the interviewer and create a good public image.

Overall, while the leaders share a high distrust of others, they differ in their conceptual complexity and openness to information. Given that “individual differences are important to outcomes, making the nature of those differences the crucial explanatory factor” (Dyson, 2006:294), we would expect foreign policy changes between the administrations of Bush and Obama to be influenced by their personality differences, with foreign policy continuities being reflective of their similarities. However, as shall be illustrated in the following sections, even their differences did not necessitate a substantive change in counterterrorism policy (Walker, 2011).

Continuity and Change: the ‘War on Terror’

George W. Bush’s approach to counterterrorism can largely be explained by his low conceptual complexity and ignorance to contextual information, and high distrust of others. These traits may be due to Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience (Saunders, 2017). Indeed, in his comparative study of US presidents, Preston (2001) found that this can reinforce a simplified worldview and a heavy reliance on entrenched beliefs – as was predicted for Bush. Other studies have analysed the congruence between these personality traits and Bush’s decision-making surrounding the 2003 Iraq war (Saunders, 2017; Shannon and Keller, 2007). However, these traits can also explain his policies surrounding Guantanamo Bay and ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques. Guantanamo Bay, a detention centre for terrorist suspects, was opened in 2002 and has been dubbed a ‘legal blackhole’ due to its immunity from the jurisdiction of US federal courts given its placement on Cuban soil (Steyn, 2004). Here, Bush declared the prisoners – often detained without evidence – void of rights under the Geneva Conventions by labelling them ‘unlawful combatants’ (Birdsall, 2010). This blatant disregard for human rights and international legal obligations reflects Bush’s low conceptual complexity and high levels of distrust: “I wasn’t interested in lawyers; I wasn’t interested in a bunch of debate. I was interested in finding out who did it and bring them to justice” (Bush, 2002:17). Bush’s propensity to violate international norms is perhaps most evidenced by the ‘torture memos’, which were released in 2009 and highlight how his administration warped international law to justify their use of ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ including waterboarding: “torture was systematically, legally, and in exquisite detail defined out of existence” (Greenberg, 2009:8). This violence in the name of ‘national security’ reflects Bush’s high DIS and IGB, and subsequent propensity for aggression to eliminate threats. Bush’s reinterpretation of international law is said to have been challenged within his administration (Birdsall, 2016), however he chose to ignore dissenting voices and listened only to the legal advice he wanted to hear. This reflects his high SC and PWR in his convictions and closure to competing information. It was due to these controversial policies of the Bush administration that the public were optimistic about change under Obama.

As aforementioned, Barak Obama’s approach to the war on terror sparked disappointment in the perception that it did not largely differ from Bush’s. However, this paints an overly simplistic picture, as Obama’s major foreign policy approaches “demonstrated both continuity and change” with those of his predecessor (Holland, 2013:17). For example, Obama issued Executive Order 13492 upon gaining office, promising he would close Guantanamo Bay, and banned the ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ which were detailed in the memos (Forsythe, 2011). Unlike Bush, he valued inputs in his policy making and was open to debate (Winter, 2011). This reflects his higher score for CC and openness to contextual information, as he sought to address the shaky legal justifications of Bush’s counterterrorism approaches. However, claims of continuity in the policy approaches of Bush and Obama do not lack credibility. For example, Obama failed to live up to his promises of closing Guantanamo Bay and continued to try terrorist suspects through military commissions that didn’t observe defendants’ right to a fair trial (Forsythe, 2011; Birdsall, 2010). This can be partly explained by their similarities in leadership traits – namely, their equally high levels of distrust and high self-confidence. These traits were also evident in Obama’s increasing reliance on drones and targeted killing, which was justified through an expanded definition of combatancy to include ‘unlawful combatants’, following the precedent set by Bush (Sanders, 2014). His high DIS was also evident when he failed to inform the Pakistani government of the plan to kill Bin Laden until after the mission’s success (Holland, 2013). In this vein, McCrisken (2011) argues that Obama had much of the same beliefs as Bush in terms of the necessity of force in the war against terror.

Alternative Explanations: Contextual Factors

However, in explaining continuity between Bush and Obama’s approaches to the war on terror, it is important to note that there are occasionally intervening factors between decisions and outcomes, such as constraints on decision-making. This partly explains why the leaders’ personality differences did not always manifest in substantive policy changes. For example, Obama was initially unable to close Guantanamo Bay was due to bipartisan opposition from Congress in 2010 (McCrisken 2011). Furthermore, some scholars argue that Obama’s efforts to change counterterrorism policies were stunted by the institutionalisation of the war on terror and “culture of fear” fostered by Bush (Holland, 2013:16). Indeed, Obama’s higher conceptual complexity score and openness to information suggests that he would likely to be aware of these public fears and respond to them accordingly.

However, personality also matters in the face of institutional and ideological constraints: leaders react differently to these, and the fact that Obama’s efforts were stunted by Congressional opposition is a finding in itself. His moderate score for task orientation suggests he is charismatic and highly flexible in meeting both his own goals and accommodating the prevailing interests of others (Hermann, 2005b). His high sensitivity to context and willingness to listen to others in the decision-making process may also explain his respectful reaction to constraints on his leadership. According to Keller, “more pragmatic leaders tend to internalise potential constraints, by allowing their policy choices to be guided by the preferences of the constituencies to whom they are accountable, and by avoiding (or reversing) policies that provoke serious political opposition” (2005:840). Therefore, although the context within which Obama operated cannot be ignored in examining the congruence between his personality and the political outcomes associated with his administration, personality remains a crucial explanatory factor in understanding the minimal changes in US counterterrorism policy from Bush to Obama.


This essay sought to explain why there was such a high degree of continuity between Bush and Obama’s foreign policy approaches to the ‘war on terror’, in light of the disappointment of those optimistic about a move away from Bush’s controversial policies. This optimism was largely founded on perceived differences between the beliefs of Bush and Obama – differences emphasised by Obama himself. This essay assessed the credibility of these claims through LTA and found that the beliefs of Bush and Obama did differ; most significantly with respect to their conceptual complexity and openness to contextual information. These differences manifested where Obama sought to change policy, such as his attempted closure of Guantanamo Bay and the banning of ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods. However, Bush and Obama also shared some important personality characteristics, such as their high distrust of others and subsequent likelihood to use force in the name of national security. These similarities can partly explain continuities in the leaders’ counterterrorism approaches, for example Obama continued to try suspected terrorists through morally hazardous military commissions and engaged in strategic legalism to justify targeted killings and drone usage. This essay also highlighted that not all personality differences necessitate a substantive change in policy outcomes due to contextual factors such as political constraints on decision-making. Nevertheless, it was argued that Obama’s personality traits predisposed him to respect the constraints he faced and shape policy accordingly. In conclusion, knowledge of the personality traits of Bush and Obama is integral to an understanding of foreign policy continuity and change between their administrations.

Overall, while LTA proved a useful approach in drawing these conclusions, the validity of this study could have been strengthened had the leaders’ profiles been contextualised through temporal analysis and across different topics to investigate whether the leaders had more salient beliefs when discussing certain policy areas, and whether these changed in the aftermath of key political events (Hermann 2005a). A more focused norming group of other US presidents could also have increased the validity of comparisons that were made. However, the large norming group also had its advantages, as the leaders may have been more likely to be compared to themselves had a smaller norming group of other US presidents been used (given that norming group details are confidential).


Appendix 1*

Belief in ability to control eventsPerception of the world as an environment leader can influence. Leader’s own state is perceived as an influential actor in the international systemPercenatge of verbs used that reflect action or planning for action of the leader or relevant group
Conceptual complexityCapability of discerning different dimensions of the environment when describing actors, places, ideas, and situationsPercentage of words related to high complexity (i.e. “approximately”, “possibly”, “trend”) vs. low complexity (i.e. “absolutely”, “certainly”, “irreversible”)
Distrust of othersDoubt about and wariness of othersPercentage of nouns that indicate misgivings or suspicions that others intend harm toward speaker or speaker’s group
In-group biasPerception of one’s group as holding a central role, accompanied with strong feelings of national identity and honourPercentages of references to the group that are favourable (i.e. “successful”, “prosperous”, “great”), show strength (i.e. “powerful”, “capable”) or a need to maintain group identity (i.e. “decide our own policies”, “defend our borders”)
Need for powerA concern with gaining, keeping and restoring power over othersPercentage of verbs that reflect actions of attack, advise, influence and behaviour of others, concern with reputation
Self-confidencePersonal image of self-importance in terms of the ability to deal with the environmentPercentage of personal pronouns used such as “my”, “myself” and “mine”, which show speaker perceives self as the instigator of an activity, an authority figure, or a recipient of a positive reward
Task orientationRelative focus on problem solving versus maintenance of relationship to others. Higher score indicates greater problem focusPercentage of words related to instrumental activities (i.e. “accomplishment”, “plan”, “proposal”) versus concern for other’s feelings and desires (i.e. “collaboration”, “amnesty”, “appreciation”).

*(Dyson, 2006:292)


  • Birdsall, A. (2016). But we don’t call it ‘torture’! Norm contestation during the US ‘War on Terror’. International Politics, 53(2), pp.176-197.
  • Birdsall, Andrea. (2010). ‘‘A monstrous failure of justice’? Guantanamo Bay and national security challenges to fundamental human rights’, International Politics. 47 (6), pp. 680-697.
  • Bush, George W. (2002). Remarks at a town meeting in Ontario, California (January 15, 2002). Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 14 January, 38: 2, 11–19.
  • Cuhadar, E., Kaarbo, J., Kesgin, B. and Ozkececi-Taner, B. (2016). Personality or Role? Comparisons of Turkish Leaders Across Different Institutional Positions. Political Psychology, 38(1), pp.39-54.
  • Derksen, H. 2012. Leadership Trait Analysis Scores (Means and Standard Deviations); as supplied by Kaarbo, J. (2019) in course materials.
  • Dille, B. & Young, M. D. (2000). The Conceptual Complexity of Presidents Carter and Clinton: An Automated Content Analysis of Temporal Stability and Source Bias. Political Psychology, 21(3), pp.587-596.
  • Dyson, S. (2006). Personality and Foreign Policy: Tony Blair’s Iraq Decisions. Foreign Policy Analysis, 2(3), pp.289-306.
  • Dyson, S. (2009). Cognitive Style and Foreign Policy: Margaret Thatcher’s Black-and-White Thinking. International Political Science Review, 30(1), pp.33-48.
  • Dyson, S. (2016). Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and the Great Financial Crisis: Leadership traits and policy responses. British Politics, 13(2), pp.121-145.
  • Forsythe, D. (2011). US Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Situating Obama. Human Rights Quarterly, 33(3), pp.767-789.
  • Greenberg, K. (2009). What the Torture Memos Tell Us. Survival, 51(3), pp.5-12.
  • HE, K. & FENG, H. 2013. Xi Jinping’s Operational Code Beliefs and China’s Foreign Policy. Chinese Journal of International Politics, 6(3), pp.209-231.
  • Hermann, M. (2005)
  • Assessing Leadership Style: Trait Analysis. In: J. Post, ed., The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders. [online] University of Michigan Press. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=3414702 [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].
  • Saddam Hussein’s Leadership Style. In: J. Post, ed., The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders: With Profiles of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton. The University of Michigan Press, pp.375-386.
  • Holland, J (2013) Why is change so hard? Continuity in American foreign policy from Bush to Obama. In: Bentley, M and Holland, J, (eds.) Obama’s Foreign Policy: Ending the War on Terror. Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, pp. 1-16.
  • Jackson, R. (2011). Culture, identity and hegemony: Continuity and (the lack of) change in US counterterrorism policy from Bush to Obama. International Politics, 48(2-3), pp.390-411.
  • Keller, J. (2005). Constraint Respecters, Constraint Challengers, and Crisis Decision Making in Democracies: A Case Study Analysis of Kennedy versus Reagan. Political Psychology, 26(6), pp.835-867.
  • McCrisken, T. (2011). Ten years on: Obama’s war on terrorism in rhetoric and practice. International Affairs, 87(4), pp.781-801.
  • Preston, T. (2001). The President and His Inner Circle: Leadership Style and the Advisory Process in Foreign Affairs. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Renshon, S. (2005). George W. Bush’s Cowboy Politics: An Inquiry. Political Psychology, 26(4), pp.585-614.
  • Sanders, R. (2014). Legal Frontiers: Targeted Killing at the Borders of War. Journal of Human Rights, 13(4), pp.512-536.
  • Saunders, E. (2017). No Substitute for Experience: Presidents, Advisers, and Information in Group Decision Making. International Organization, 71(S1), pp.S219-S247.
  • Schafer, M. & Crichlow, S. 2000. Bill Clinton’s Operational Code: Assessing Source Material Bias. Political Psychology, 21(3), pp.559-571.
  • Shannon, V. and Keller, J. (2007). Leadership Style and International Norm Violation: The Case of the Iraq War. Foreign Policy Analysis, 3(1), pp.79-104.
  • Steyn, J. (2004). Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 53(1), pp.1-15.
  • The American Presidency Project. (2019). Interviews | The American Presidency Project. [online] Available at: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/app-categories/presidential/interviews [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].
  • Walker, S. (2011). Anticipating attacks from the operational codes of terrorist groups. Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 4(2), pp.135-143.
  • Walker, S. G. 2000. Assessing psychological characteristics at a distance: Symposium lessons and future research directions. Political Psychology, 21(3), pp.597-602.
  • Walker, S., Schafer, M. and Young, M. (2005). Profiling the Operational Codes of Political Leaders. In: J. Post, ed., The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders. [online] University of Michigan Press. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=3414702. [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].
  • Winter, D. (2011). Philosopher-King or Polarizing Politician? A Personality Profile of Barack Obama. Political Psychology, 32(6), pp.1059-1081. Yang, Y. (2010). Leaders’ Conceptual Complexity and Foreign Policy Change: Comparing the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Foreign Policies toward China. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3(4), pp.415-446.