Sunday, March 04, 2012

Review of Justin Frank'sObama on the Couch (1 of 2)

Justin Frank's Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President (2011) is an insightful biography of President Obama. It's written for a general audience, though will be hard going for readers without some familiarity with psychoanalytic terms. And completely unreadable for anyone committed to the FOX News image of Obama as an America-hating radical Muslim atheist.

It has mixed news for any Dems hoping that a second term Obama would be more aggressive in pushing his nominal agenda. Frank argues that despite the slogans, Obama is suspicious of change. And that he may literally not be able to recognize the degree of hostility and even hatred directed at him by his political enemies. He also has some valuable observations on Obama's view of his speeches and the ways in which he is inclined to depreciate the progressive viewpoint, which he associates with impracticality and ineffectiveness. The latter two traits produce the particular Obama form of divergence between professed goals and real ones.

Psychological biographies are tricky business, though it hasn't stopped lots of people from writing them. Sigmund Freud's first major venture into the pyschobiography field, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910), provided him experience of the perils of the genre. Much of Freud's analysis was built around a memory of Da Vinci's involving a vulture, which produced some fascinating discussion of vulture symbolism. But when the English Standard Edition was being prepared, the translators discovered that Freud had relied heavily on a German translation of an Italian book. And that the bird involved in the Italian source was a kite, not a vulture. Oops!

Frank seems to be careful in his analysis, and reminds his readers of some of the limitations of the public sources on which he relies. And he added a chapter after the killing of Osama bin Laden that he admits provided surprising new data to him in terms of Obama's decision-making. But good psychoanalysts know what to look for in evaluating their subjects. So even a study like this one with inherently flawed sources material can still provide useful information and insights.

And Frank achieves that.

He argues that acting as a conciliator between conflicting groups seems to be a central way in which Obama conceives his public role. He relates it to Obama's efforts as a child and young man to derive an identity with which he was comfortable between the two sides of his racial heritage, which of course in the American context had significant implications for him in practical daily life. But this observation doesn't have to rely on speculation about Obama's interior emotional life in his youth. It is a theme that runs throughout his public career, from reconciling conflicting factions as the president of the Harvard Law Review to his legendary keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, rejecting the division of the country into "blue America" and "red America". And on to less uplifting moments, like his desperate and disastrous handling of the debt ceiling debate in 2011.

Frank clearly has a high regard for Obama's overall general health. Readers not accustomed to psychoanalytic studies may wonder in places whether some of the developmental processes Frank is describing are pathological. But he writes, "Despite his various blind spots, Obama maintains a generally high level of mental health. In light of the challenges he has faced, his mental health can be considered among his finest and most significant accomplishments - the ultimate achievement, perhaps, of a very driven and successful achiever." (p. 143) He adds, "Most impressive to me as a psychoanalyst has been his capacity to bear psychic pain and to think in the face of anxiety." (p. 144)

This is a good thing. We have had characters in the White House who seemed to suffer from genuinely pathological psychological problems, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon being two of the more obvious candidates for that category. George W. Bush's issues as a dry drunk were less concerning than his deference to Dick Cheney, who a lay person in psychology might suspect of being what is popularly called a psychopath. So having a person of generally sound mental condition, maybe an especially healthy mental conditions, is a good thing.

But strengths can also be weaknesses in certain circumstances. And that is how Frank presents Obama's determination to try to conciliate his intransigent Republican opponents: "This confidence that we have such a great possibility to get along is a bulwark against the overwhelming fear that there really is murder in the air. He runs after the Republicans while looking over his shoulder to shush (or worse) the Left for fear that it will interfere with his accommodation efforts."

Frank isn't using "murder" as hyperbole. He's referring to actual political violence driven by hatred of Obama, fired on by reckless demagoguery from Republican stars like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Frank was particularly struck by Obama's speech in the wake of the literally murderous violence directed against Congresswoman Gaby Giffords in 2011. Instead of concentrating on stigmatizing rightwing terror groups and the kind of incitement to sedition that they and media figures like Glenn Beck were practicing, he instead called for general civility, stuck with his focus on conciliation of opposing sides. Which becomes problematic in a situation like that where Both Sides clearly did not present symmetrical dangers. Frank states the problem well in this passage:

Observers who share Obama's background in community organization might also see nothing pathological about his approach. His relentless pursuit of compromise is certainly consistent with a community organizer's mind-set - indeed, is perhaps more reminiscent of a chief organizer than a chief executive - as is his vision of living in a community that tolerates difference and continues to grow. But even a community organizer can't be effective when one segment of the community is as uncooperative as the Republican leadership's insistence in late 2010 that preventing Obama's reelection was a higher priority than governing. Seen in its full and unprecedented destructiveness, which in early January [2001] spilled over into violence in Arizona with the tragic killing of six innocents and the serious wounding of Representative Giffords that some found shocking but close observers saw as inevitable, the Republicans' position is dangerous not just to the Democrats but to our very democracy and transforms Obama's vision of community into a misleading fantasy. [my emphasis] (p. 86)
Frank describes Obama's fixation on compromise with opponents who clearly have no interest in reconciliation with him as "obsessive bipartisan disorder". He's not trying to establish a new official category for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it's a humorously appropriate description of Obama's political style as President.

One major point in which Frank relies particularly heavily on Obama's personal history and childhood experiences is his argument that Obama is suspicious of change, i.e., that he has a fundamentally conservative temperament. Without trying to do justice to the careful argument he makes, Frank argues that Obama's experiences with his parents, both of whom held progressive, "idealistic" political views, make him strongly distrustful of his progressive supporters in a way that he is not suspicious of corporate Democrats or even Republicans: "it's clear that the more liberal element of his party represents a force and yearning for change that frightens him." (p. 139) Frank's point is consistent with much of what we've seen in Obama's cautious approach to reform, such as pulling back from strictly regulating the business of financial derivatives, which present painfully obvious systemic risks to the financial system. And, despite the hysterical Republican rhetoric against it, it's reflected in his choice of approach to health insurance reform, which was more based on Willard Romney's Massachusetts plan and the Republicans plan Bob Dole endorsed in his 1996 Presidential campaign than on traditional Democratic approaches. It also shows in his early agreement with health-industry lobbyists to oppose a public option, an agreement he concealed from supporters.

It's often reflected in his speeches, as well. One example that Frank does not cite in the book is from his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, which Frank calls "the most important speech of his political career":

People don’t expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
His alternative to Cheney-Bush social policies was just a slight change in priorities. That is the expression of a conservative temperament. Or at least the classic conservative temperament of feeling the need to make haste slowly.

(Continued in Part 2)

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