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Obama is psychoanalyzed in the New York Times

August 7, 2011

The op-ed today by Drew Westen on Barack Obama is one of the better pieces I’ve seen in the New York Times in quite some time.  While it fails to make a larger critique, I think it still expresses exceptionally well the very high level of frustration that exists toward this essentially unknown individual who jumped onto the stage in 2008 and was able to fool so many on the left.  The very fact it appears in the Times is significant.

Westen opens by recalling his “feeling of unease” with Obama’s failure to address and attack the fundamental narratives of the right during his inauguration speech.  I remember feeling the exact same way then and also on election night a few months earlier – how disconnected he seemed when addressing his wild throng of supporters in Chicago.

He correctly observes that Obama has done great damage to the cause of progress, comparing him in very unfavorable terms to Martin Luther King:

The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it.

Westen is a practicing psychologist and offers something pretty close to a psychological diagnosis.

As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue.

He laments the absence of a final chapter in Obama’s “Dreams from my Father”

in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

A … possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history.  (H)e had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

(Whether he has an) aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

And he eloquently concludes:

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

It’s good to see a psychologist offer an evaluation as we should always bear in mind the extreme psychological stresses inherent in being a Democratic president: hypocrisy is hard – always having to pretend to the people while serving hidden masters.  I wrote a while ago that Obama seemed to be going through a HAL 9000 crisis.  Far healthier to be a Republican!

I liked this article, but I can’t help but note its lack of a broader perspective.  Why, for instance, did the same level of dissatisfaction exist for all prior postwar Democratic presidents?  Is it a strange historical coincidence that we always end up with individuals having  psychological weaknesses or is there a greater structural issue to consider?  The psyche of Obama is a worthwhile subject for debate but maybe the more important question is if it’s at all possible for any Democrat to ascend to the party nomination without having broadly similar world outlooks and corresponding personality defects.

Come to think of it, doesn’t a similar psychological question need to be raised about Obama’s peers throughout the world?  We find social democratic leaders in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and many other places who are following the same, if not worse, policies as Obama.  Shouldn’t they, who merrily push austerity on their populations after having been elected as progressives, also be psychoanalyzed?   Are the citizens of these countries also being led by psychological weaklings who just want to be liked by the powerful?  Perhaps Westen is planning a future article on this extraordinarily broad global psychological phenomenon.

From → Dynamics, Suppression

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