Friday, August 29, 2008

Psychoanalyzing the Great Obama: Messiah or Empty Suit?

Messiah or Macbeth?

By Robert Stein, Ph.D.

Messiah or empty suit? Rarely do politicians exclusively fit into one of these categories. In many respects, Barack Obama is unlike any recent American presidential candidate. Aside from his obvious mixed racial ancestry, one has to return to the early days of the republic to find someone with so varied an early developmental history in non-traditional American settings. Yet, his chaotic childhood is quite similar to that of Bill Clinton. Both lost fathers, both were very close to their mothers and both had step-fathers who were less than stellar father substitutes. Both were academic overachievers and both have an ability to connect with people.

But whereas Clinton had a relatively stable geographic residence, Obama lacked that until later in his childhood. Whereas Clinton’s identity as a white southerner was incontrovertible, Obama was essentially a black face in a white home. His mother’s frequent travels, had a profound impact on the development of his identity and contributed to his chameleon-like belief system.

Obama, lacks a solid internal figure of both his father and mother. Although he speaks glowingly of his mother, as with many children with absent parents, they tend to hold idealized images which are out of sync with reality. Lacking internal parent images (he admits his conflicted feelings for his grandparents[1]), he relies on others to firm up his own identity. Despite a commitment to radical leftist ideas from early adulthood, he has easily jettisoned the more obvious external trappings when his candidacy became viable.

Charles Steele Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lamented that Obama lacked “slave blood” early in the campaign. This ironic twist highlighted initial opposition by the African-American establishment. If elected, Obama will owe much to the near unanimous support of the American black community. Yet, his early childhood and adolescent environment bears little resemblance to those of multi-generational inner-city African-Americans. Although his commitment to leftist causes protected him from being called an oreo, it might be more appropriate to describe Obama as “cookies & cream” - mostly white, with chunks of black tossed in.

In his writings, he yearns for a link to his father’s African ancestry, a link he will never achieve. In fact both his African and African-American identities have been painstakingly constructed and emerged out of his adolescent rebellion against a white grandfather who he admits didn’t understand him[2]. As an impressionable young man still searching for a nurturing father substitute, he began attending Rev. Wright’s church with its leftist Liberation Theology. For 20 years, Wright participated in all of Obama’s important family events. He even provided the inspiration for Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope”. In “Dreams From my Father” he quotes Wright’s statement “white folks greed runs a world in need[3]”. Ironically he cannot exclude himself from that condemnation. If not for his marriage to a genuine African-American he would have difficulty claiming to be one.

This conflict goes to the heart of his identity confusion reflected in the inexorable belief that he, rather than the policies he advocates or the actions he takes, is “the bridge” between black and white. Yet bridges, suspended as they are between two summits, cannot claim firm allegiance to either side, while constantly in danger of collapsing into the gulf they span. They are always alone.

Those of us more concerned with the substance of Obama’s positions than the romance of his quest, are inevitably disappointed by his speeches. It is unlikely this will change. On the one hand, Obama knows his radical views are not held by a majority of American voters, so he dare not explicitly state them. On the other, he is reluctant to firmly lock himself into a position, because ultimately he isn’t entirely sure what he truly believes.

This is an essential component of Obama’s repeated attempts to lecture from both sides of an issue. Being far more polished and poetic than John Kerry, he never uses such oxymorons as, “I voted for it, before I voted against it.[4] He will, as he did in his acceptance speech, advocate 2nd Amendment gun rights, while simultaneously emphasizing the need for gun control[5] or endorsing a death penalty moratorium while criticizing the Supreme Court ruling barring the death penalty for child rapists[6].

All of this contributes to an amazing tone-deafness, to which his true believers are blind. Being himself the “bridge” and the “channel” by which racial harmony will appear, he sees himself as exempt from the usual rules. Accused of being a “rock star”, he simply dismisses the charge while giving his convention speech in a rock star venue, with the trappings of a Greek temple.
Accused of lacking substance in his proposals, he gives an acceptance speech high on drama, high on visual effects, high on image and short on specifics, while decrying his opponent for daring to challenge him on being short of specifics.

Predicting people’s behavior is a difficult proposition even with an established prior history of conduct. Obama’s responses have to give even the most seasoned observer pause as to how he will react in the meat grinder of the presidency. Politician’s can be notoriously sociopathic and superficial. But in Obama’s case he appears to lack some of the more protective features associated with being calculating.

The outcome of close elections often hinges on intangibles and external events. Obama may win. However, once in office, he will initially be a president who is repeatedly outmaneuvered by both political allies and opponents. After all, “the devil is in the details”. But, given his lack of an underlying identity and the centrality of a belief in himself as icon, there is no way to predict what final form his mission will take. It might be quite a surprise to even his most ardent supporters.

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