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The Psychological Foundation of Obama’s Political Problems

In June 1985, Flora Lewis wrote in the New York Times that then-President Ronald Reagan said he had pounded the walls in frustration over the hostage crisis in Beirut. Given what we know about Reagan, it's not hard to believe that he would resort to such measures to express his rage.

Now try to imagine Barack Obama similarly venting his frustration at the Republicans taking his agenda hostage for political gain. Hard to visualize, isn't it?

That's no accident. Since being elected president, Obama has consistently displayed a cool demeanor, one that has confounded many of his former supporters. His detachment has led many to think that he is oblivious, disinterested, even frightened of direct confrontation. The latest instance has been his passive observation of the failure of the Super Committee, which has spurred pundits and politicians from both sides of the aisle to accuse him of lacking the fire to be president. MSNBC news host Chris Matthews, once one of the president's biggest fans, recently placed direct blame for the country's malaise on the President's lack of emotional leadership. “There's nothing to root for,” he complained.

The fact that the President has failed to address, hands-on, such a critical problem should make us realize that his reluctance to take charge is not a cognitive issue, but a psychological one. It's not that Obama doesn't understand what he ought to be doing—it’s that the structure of his personality won't allow him to constructively address the problem.

This is where psychoanalysis can be of benefit. By recognizing Obama’s behavior patterns we can illuminate the unconscious thought processes that might be influencing them. Fortunately, one needn’t treat Obama as a patient to undertake a thorough analysis of him. After all, there is plenty of public material available—not least, his autobiography Dreams From My Father—from which to sketch an outline of the President’s personality using a technique called “applied psychoanalysis.”

First, some psychological preliminaries. The President's detractors are suggesting that he doesn't feel enough passion or emotion. But a basic tenet of psychoanalysis is that everyone has rage. The question is what one does with that rage, and why.

On a psychoanalytic level, Obama is someone who tries to disconnect himself from fury through intellectual exertion and by strenuously trying to keep matters in clear focus. He doesn’t simply contain his rage or hold it inside his mind; he dissociates–a psychoanalytic term for disconnecting thought from feeling.  This allows him to operate in a purely intellectual state, protected from the disruptive influences of excessive passions.

The 1789 French Revolutionary saying, “The tongue is the enemy of the neck," describes the approach Obama has always lived by. He turns a blind eye to his own rage; he seems almost sleepwalking when others would be screaming.  This is not simply a matter of the president’s public persona pushing aside the private, enraged one.  It is a profound ability to disconnect himself from feeling the full force of his own rage.

Ultimately, this is an expression of his fear of abandonment. In fact, what appears as detachment is the latest manifestation of a long history of removing himself from the fray in idiosyncratic ways.  Growing up as a mixed-race child of two broken homes, and living in two dramatically different countries, Barack Obama learned to survive by carefully noticing everything around him while at the same time not allowing himself to feel the full emotional impact of his experience.

He dealt with loss without protest. He didn't complain when his mother abandoned him to pursue her passion for anthropology on far-flung expeditions, or when she removed him from the home of his stepfather in Jakarta when he was ten. Instead, Obama focused on surviving by getting along. He pursued inclusion relentlessly, even when circumstances repeatedly cast him in the role of the outsider. 

It's not an accident that one of the strategies he developed to maintain his membership in groups was to keep his mouth shut. Indeed, his autobiographies show that he was repeatedly taught as a child to keep his feelings to himself. His stepfather Lolo told him regularly never to complain if he were hurt or in trouble. His high school basketball teammates reinforced that message some years later. And so by keeping careful and cautious watch of his surroundings, he learned to be at home in different groups, easily shifting from one to the other.

This kind of dissociation is at the core of some his greatest political strengths. It helped him become intellectually nimble, and acutely alert to his surroundings. It's only by adapting this kind of psychic position his entire life that Obama was able to easily joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner while knowing there was an active mission underway to kill Osama bin Laden.

But assuming this perpetually peripheral role has also taken a lasting toll. The anxiety of not belonging has grown to occupy an ever-greater part of his psyche. He writes in Dreams From My Father that when, as an adult, he was walking through the most dangerous parts of Chicago late at night, the greatest fear he had was the fear of not belonging. But now there is a new tension, between his need to belong and the demands of standing up for what he believes.  The former is driven by his related fears of not belonging and being abandoned; the latter carries the risk of alienating others irrevocably. 

In material reality, his concern with alienating conservatives is wholly unproductive: it is unlikely that he can be more hated by the Tea Party than he already is. Nonetheless, he continues to relentlessly pursue compromises with Republicans that will never happen. Indeed, so concerned is he with his own degree of belonging that he jeopardizes the sympathies of those who actually have felt a natural and authentic connection to him. Whatever other political and personal advantages it confers, Obama's observational caution doesn’t give jobless participants in “Occupy Wall Street” or Wisconsin’s striking public employees the sense that he is concerned. 

Again, it's not that the President lacks passionate emotions. Indeed, given the onslaught of personal provocations doled out by his political competitors, his stores of rage are sure to be filling up. But the question of what will happen with that anger will likely be closely bound with his reelection campaign in 2012. Previously, he has found an outlet for aggression on the campaign trail: The only times he has felt comfortable being truly rhetorically confrontational are when he's standing behind a teleprompter or a podium and before a cheering audience.

There are hints of this campaign persona in the unusually blunt talk coming from the president recently, as when he warned that there “will be no easy exit ramps” for Congress as it tries to escape painful spending cuts. But it remains to be seen whether this is merely a temporary ventilation of Candidate Obama, or a more lasting change in the psychology of the President.

Of course, Obama's detachment is a pattern, and patterns aren't broken easily. In ordinary circumstances it might take years of analysis for someone so well defended to express his anger fully.  As President neither he nor our nation can afford the psychoanalytic time that takes.

In the meantime, he will likely fail to see the greatest irony of his current position. As sensitive he is to group dynamics, as the President of the United States, he is now the sole member of an exclusive group of one.  And he's going to need to push through his fears in order to avoid joining the only other group available to him—that of the ex-presidents.

Justin A. Frank, MD is a psychoanalyst, clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington Medical Center, and the author of Obama on the Couch.