Three years into his presidency, Barack Obama, the most eloquent and candid of modern presidents, remains an enigma, even – especially? – to his most ardent supporters (a dwindling band, to be sure). A shelf’s worth of worthy biographies and an intimate, lyrical memoir have left us impressed, inspired, and, finally, puzzled. Why has the candidate who promised so much change delivered so little of it? Why has the soaring orator seldom lived up to his words? Why is Mr. Yes We Can so willing to compromise on what he claims to want? Why is he so reluctant to answer fight with fight, anger with anger? Why does he bend? Where will he not bend?
Where conventional journalism and biography have fallen short, Dr. Justin Frank is betting psychoanalysis will pull through. A practicing psychoanalyst and the author of a well-received psycho-biography of George W. Bush (Bush on the Couch), Frank applies the insights and techniques of his trade in an effort to unravel the mysteries and inconsistencies of Barack Obama’s character. “I approach Obama as an admirable and down-to-earth individual who is generally in excellent mental health,” Frank writes in the introduction to his new book, Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. “Nevertheless, Obama, like all of us, repeatedly demonstrates that his otherwise healthy outlook is not without some potentially troubling blind spots.”
Frank seeks the origins of those blind spots in the welter of writing by and about Obama, paying especially close attention to his subject’s childhood as the mixed-race, ostensibly black child of a white mother in a fatherless home, for clues to what he calls the “idiosyncratic unconscious factors” that have driven many of his decisions in office, and that “[Obama] himself doesn’t recognize.”
Rolling Stone recently got Frank on the phone to talk about Obama’s need to bring people together, his “obsessive bipartisan disorder,” and why John Boehner may end up being his best therapist. Below, some highlights from our conversation.
On Obama’s “obsessive bipartisan disorder”
“He persists in seeing that we can have a grand bargain or that there can be some kind of grand agreement – in the face of all the evidence. He has denied the absolute statement of many members of the Republican Party who have said that they will not work with him, period. That makes it a disorder.”
On where it comes from
“He has a tremendous need to heal his family and [consequently] a deep need for people to get along, especially because he had no father to help him learn how to manage his aggression. He is very much focused on taking care of other people.
On how it causes him to underestimate his opponents’ animosity
“When Bill O’Reilly interviewed him before the Superbowl game he said to President Obama, ‘How does it feel to be hated?’ And Obama couldn’t even use the word ‘hated’ – he used the word ‘disliked.’ And O’Reilly had to break through that he said hated, not disliked.”
On the “change” mystery: why he promised so much and delivered so little
“I think when he said ‘change’ it was misinterpreted. He wanted a change in civility. He wanted people to talk together and get along. What he meant was to move from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking – where I can disagree with you and still work with you. The problem is, if you are an either/or person, anybody who wants you to have a more balanced viewpoint is seen as a threat.”
On what his handling of Bin Laden tells us about Obama
“When he’s decisive it’s usually based in bipartisan agreement. There was 100 percent agreement that Bin Laden was a monster that had to be gotten rid of, and so he had no qualms being aggressive and destructive because he was being aggressive and destructive in a safe way that everyone agreed upon.”
On his more combative tone of late
“In my clinical practice, I look for signs of change, and in this case there is some difference between the Obama we’ve seen for most of his term and the one [we’ve seen more recently] – something a little more aggressive in his approach. He is potentially moving away from this compulsive bipartisan need of his and realizing that you can’t try to make agreements with people who are not interested in making an agreement. He may be beginning to see that the Republicans are opposed to any change whatsoever. In a sense, the best therapist for his obsessive bipartisan disorder is going to be John Boehner and his colleagues.”
On the differences between Bush and Obama
“One thinks only in terms of either/or – that’s Bush: You’re with us or against us. Obama has the ability to stop and think and not immediately characterize people into good or bad. Writing a book about Obama was much more of a challenge in one way because I really like and admire him. Bush I really was frightened of, because I came to feel that he was not competent to be president.”