Who Is More Thoughtful—Obama or Romney?

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney present a sharp contrast in decision-making styles—one impulsive, the other overtly deliberative

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Rogelio V. Solis / AP (left); KRISTOFFER TRIPPLAAR / EPA (right)

Obama’s announcement of his support for gay marriage and Romney’s reaction to the revelations that he bullied a gay classmate in prep school offer vivid examples of the differences between how the two candidates think — and, ultimately, govern.

People mistrust people who take time to think before they speak, which accounts for some of the suspicion surrounding Obama’s announcement supporting gay marriage. A recent New York Times/CBS poll has found that 67 percent of those surveyed believe that Obama made his announcement when he did “mostly for political reasons.” And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd faulted the way Obama justified his position as “the logical extension of what America is supposed to be,” complaining that the history-making announcement was rendered anti-climactic by what she saw as a lack of passion. Dowd wanted the president to be “occasionally blurting out something,” but what both criticisms share is an attraction to non-thought.

(MORE: Will Black Voters Punish Obama for His Support of Gay Rights?)

Close observers will note, however, that Obama has long displayed a decision-making strategy that reflects his unconscious approach to facing his own inner conflicts — namely, he has to put passion aside in order to think about those inner conflicts so he can face them squarely and push through them. And once he has made a decision, any position he takes is qualified by taking the whole into account — as when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize by noting that as president he must sometimes use force when necessary.

This clarifies the nature of some of the change that Obama is bringing to the presidency. Supporters who were hoping that he would be an instant antidote to Bush in terms of immediate policy-making have been frustrated, in the case of his “evolving” same-sex marriage position, that he took as long as he did to reach his decision. Instant antidotes protect against anxiety and the pain of having to face unpleasant facts.

(MORE: Why Obama Hasn’t “Lost” the South)

Compare Obama’s reflective approach with the reports that emerged last week of Romney’s prep school cruelty towards a gay classmate, which were met with his unconvincing denial in the form of a memory lapse. The actual incident, a clear example of impulsive behavior, may be at least somewhat attributable to adolescent immaturity. Last week’s disingenuous denial, however, cannot: Romney’s claim that he doesn’t remember, seen in the context of his rapidly-developing persona as someone who will say anything to get elected, seems mostly like an automatic, impulsive response—to avoid both self-recognition and taking responsibility.

Even decades in the past, the attack on his classmate is troubling in its evocation of the youthful privileged sadism we recognize from the frat boy antics of former President Bush. Bush’s problems with impulse control continued into adulthood and characterized the thinking that shaped his presidency. The question now is, do we want to elect a deliberate or impulsive thinker to lead the country?

PHOTOS: A Visual History of the Gay Rights Movement