Obama and Trump: I, Me and Mine

The president and the GOP candidate use "I" far more than most do. It seems to be working for them, but it comes at a cost.

By John Yoest Published on June 15, 2016

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. Philippians 2:3

What do Barack Obama and Donald Trump have in common? The extensive use of the first person singular pronoun. President Obama and The Donald are both roundly criticized for making and taking their own counsel, and for speaking of themselves first.

Such narcissism is a turnoff for many, and yet one occupies the White House and the other soon may. What are we to make of this curious situation?

People Started Asking Questions

To grasp just how curious the situation it is, one has to first appreciate the fact that arrogance is understood as a real rhetorical no-no. I learned this lesson the hard way.

Your Business Professor was conducting a sales training class. I had all the information: product knowledge, sales techniques, company policy. I had all the answers, until … Until people started asking me questions. Direct, pointed challenges. One questioner: “What if the prospect just doesn’t like you?”  He was being diplomatic.

I didn’t have a clue. I thought, “Doesn’t like …?” How hard is it to be likeable? Find another line of work if you can’t manage that. Next question.

But the diplomatic questioner was attempting to make a point: It was me he didn’t like. My common brand of expert arrogance was hard to like. And in no small part because of that, he wasn’t buying what I was selling.

I had to learn to get outside my big ego. I had to learn to link the “I” to the listener’s “You.”

Connecting “I” With “You”

I had to learn that the first step in the sales process is to establish rapport with the customer. My needs didn’t matter. It was only the client and what the client needed and wanted that mattered.

I didn’t decide the value of my product. The customer decided.

So. The customer was first. And the first thing I had to change was my point of view and my language.

The first person pronouns had to go. I had to be careful of the “I,” “Me” and “Mine.”

“I” didn’t count. Only “You” mattered. The second person pronoun comes first. Finally I understood the salesman challenge: I needed to maintain confidence while checking my ego at the door.

A Too Common Characteristic

My shortcoming was far from unique, of course. It’s a common characteristic and not just among know-it-all academics. Leaders in great positions of responsibility — especially such leaders — often live in their own worlds of their own counsel. It’s not just that power tends to corrupt. Sure, that comes into it. But there’s also a selection effect for such grand position. As neuroscientist James Fallon notes, such positions all but require “individuals with narcissism, because to have the energy to be a leader you’ve got to be full of yourself. Who the [heck] else would want to be a president or CEO if they really knew what it involved?”

Oh sure, God could give a saint the sanctified courage and confidence for such a job, but in most cases, it’s good old-fashioned arrogance that does the trick. For your average world conqueror, you need a heavy dose of egotism and a lot of glibness to aspire to that kind of work and to pursue it without being ground down by all-too reasonable doubts.

So how much self-centered self-absorption is too much even for the CEO of the Free World? We had clues as President Obama began governing. Psychoanalyst Stanley Renshon writes in Commentary magazine, “Asked after the presidential campaign about the best advice he had received while running, Obama replied, ‘Well, I have to say it was the advice that I gave to myself.’”

In a similar vein Trump says, “I consult myself on foreign policy.”

Productivity expert Laura Stack points us to wisdom from the 18th century Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith, who said, “People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy.” The wisdom still applies, though don’t hold your breath for either Obama or Trump to learn the lesson.

The I’s Have It

Writer Paula Bolyard notes that Obama had referred to himself 133 times in a 33 minute speech. Reporter Terry Jeffery writes that Obama used the first person singular 199 times in a 40-minute speech. The New York Times reporter Jeremy B. Merrill writes that Trump uses those self-referential pronouns even more than Obama.

Given this off-putting dimension of their speaking styles, how have they succeeded at the persuasion game to the degree they have? There are people who are attracted to oversized, confident egos. The voters are angry and demand change. They live vicariously through these larger-than-life, larger-than-reality personalities that promise Big Changes. Some countries have Royalty. We have celebrities.

Obama and Trump each are clearly gifted communicators. Part of it is their ability to say “I” – while making the voters think “We.”

However, their narcissistic style exacts a cost.Politics is sales by another name. The politicians’ product is themselves + a worldview/agenda-benefit, and not everybody is buying what Obama and Trump are selling. Correspondent T. Becket Adams reports that Obama is a president who is judged more incompetent than Jimmy Carter. RealClear Politics has both Obama and Trump’s unfavorability north of 50%. Anything above 40% disapproval is generally considered a dead zone for politicians.

Here their ambitious natures could actually nudge them in the right direction. They crave popularity, but their palpable arrogance has created a ceiling for them. If they would climb higher, they would do well to seek the path of confident humility.

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