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Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President

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Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of a President by Justin A. Frank

Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

The following is an excerpt from Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of a President by Justin A. Frank. Copyright 2011 by Dr. Justin A. Frank.


Recently, as I drove through upstate New York, I was trying to listen to a Beethoven symphony through the chaos of five overlapping radio stations. My frustration grew until I realized that the only way I’d be able to hear “Ode to Joy” was by tuning into the frequency in my own head—the way Beethoven himself must have heard it. Because the competing channels made focused listening impossible, I turned off the radio and continued driving, content for the first time in an hour.

So it is with writing a book analyzing President Barack Obama. It seems that everyone has his or her own personal Obama. He is infinitely complex, the embodiment of one-who-creates-ambivalence-in-all-individuals. There are so many views and opinions that if I start to listen to them instead of to Obama himself—reading and listening to his autobiographical writings and speeches, hearing the discrepancies between his words and actions as president, and paying close attention to his behaviors throughout his adult life and his many repeating patterns of thought—I am lost in any effort to understand him better.

Barack Hussein Obama is unique. He has been “the first” at several moments in his public life—the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and the first black president of the United States. In private life he was a firstborn, to a nineteen-year-old white college girl from Kansas. And he has distinguished himself as exceptional in many other ways: by the time he reached law school, one Harvard professor called him the best law student he had ever taught, first out of tens of thousands of excellent students. He is the first person to win the Nobel Peace Prize based on promise, not accomplishment.

But even though we know all of this about him, many of us find ourselves still asking: Who is Barack Obama? Who is this man who suddenly rose to fame in 2004 and rode the crest of an energetic wave all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue four years later? Who, after less than two years in office, passed landmark legislation while he simultaneously dropped like a stone in the polls as his party suffered a crushing midterm defeat in 2010? And who, on May 1, 2011, issued the surprise Sunday night announcement that our Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, challenging much of what most Americans thought we knew about him?

For much of his presidency, Barack Obama has been a far more closely observed candidate and president than his predecessor. It’s also true that he has given his observers much more to work with among his prolific speechwriting, two widely read autobiographies, media accessibility, and open responses to questions; nevertheless journalists, critics, and supporters alike struggle to define him clearly. The scrutiny that has persisted well into his first term reveals more about the scrutinizers than about the subject, however. Birthers cannot relate to him except as an imposter, someone other, black and foreign. He came into office preaching that we all have common ground as Americans, and has been in a maelstrom of controversy questioning whether he is himself a U.S. citizen. His message of unity has been overshadowed by the divisiveness of his very existence. Deep into a first term in which Obama has often seemed adrift and embattled, the question of his identity remains uppermost in the nation’s mind—but the answer stays elusive.

More than eight years ago, I began questioning the full and true identity of President George W. Bush, inspired by then-nascent concerns that our president was more disturbed than anyone suspected. That inquiry grew into a full-fledged exercise in applied psychoanalysis, the discipline pioneered by Sigmund Freud of using psychoanalytic principles to assess the personalities and motivations of public figures. In 2004, I published my findings in Bush on the Couch, in which I showed that the psychoanalytic method can shed light on our leaders and how they got to be who they are. The book struck a chord and helped to usher in a new way of assessing and discussing presidential behavior.

Obama on the Couch adapts the model of my first book to provide the deeper understanding of our current president that readers across the political spectrum are hungry for. By helping readers recognize Obama’s behavior patterns and illuminating the unconscious thought processes that might be influencing them, the discipline of applied psychoanalysis can profoundly enhance our understanding of Obama’s character. Revisiting familiar and emerging details of the president’s biography from a psychoanalytical perspective reveals connections between past and present that can reframe recent history in revealing new ways, possibly even helping us anticipate how Obama’s attitude may evolve in the future—and what that might mean for our country.

I approach Obama as an admirable and down-to-earth individual who is generally in excellent mental health, especially in light of the challenges he faced in his formative childhood years. Nevertheless, Obama, like all of us, repeatedly demonstrates that his otherwise healthy outlook is not without some potentially troubling blind spots. Left uncharted, these blind spots can undermine his effectiveness as a leader—possibly paving the way for a successor who poses even graver risks to the nation and the world than George W. Bush.

Obama’s easily observed characteristics—his abilities to link thinking and feeling, to listen to and assimilate the feelings of others, to transform their input into new thoughts, to have a firm grip on internal and material reality, and to consult both his passions and conscience when making decisions—exemplify strong mental health. They also reveal his personal triumph over a turbulent childhood, and we’ll explore how many of his positive attributes—such as his brilliant facility with language, his calm in the face of chaos, and his ability to find common ground and build consensus—in fact developed out of coping mechanisms in response to the challenges he faced growing up.

Though Obama remains an exemplary man, even his most fervent admirers must concede that his performance as president has been uneven, marked by inconsistencies and disappointments that have mystified, frustrated, and discouraged observers on both the right and the left. Among his supporters, a sense of disconnect between the candidate and the president has caused concern about what is driving his choices. As a psychoanalyst I’m fascinated by someone who can be so present yet so absent. His supporters are stuck in the position of cycling between hope and disappointment. Even the satirical TV show The Onion News Network chimed in with a “story” that the real President Obama had been kidnapped hours after the election and replaced by an imposter. According to this “breaking news,” the real Obama was freed after two years and expressed shock that nobody had suspected anything was wrong—especially since he suddenly acted so differently from his espoused beliefs. He raged, “How could anyone mistake that rudderless pushover for me?” People who like Obama can nonetheless be extremely critical of him as they describe their experience of what he does and how they feel about it, as in shock at how different President Obama is from Candidate Obama.

Obama on the Couch argues that a range of the president’s decisions, from his handling of health care reform to his selection and support of economic advisers, has been motivated not just by political preferences but by idiosyncratic unconscious factors that he himself doesn’t recognize. At other times he appears to be blind to the circumstances he faces to the point of self-defeat, imposing his personal need for consensus upon the recalcitrant opposition; we’ll also look at moments that reveal that despite his emotional health, the president lacks insight into parts of himself where destructive forces gain influence.

In order to understand the parts of Obama’s character that remain impenetrable even to him, Obama on the Couch considers the work of journalists who have covered Obama’s campaign and early administration, including books by David Remnick, Jonathan Alter, Bob Woodward, and others. Obama’s books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope naturally offer an abundance of material to mine for insight. And his hands-on approach to speechwriting means that his public addresses are more accurate and revealing windows into his motives than those of many other politicians.

The psychoanalytic practice and research I bring to bear on this analysis are heavily influenced by the Freudian model as well as the work of Melanie Klein and her followers. A Viennese psychoanalyst who practiced mostly in England until her death in 1960, Klein expanded upon the Freudian tradition with theories—elaborated throughout this book—about personality formation in early childhood. As a Kleinian, I’m drawn to the numerous events and circumstances from Obama’s infancy and childhood, the psychic consequences of which would be felt as he developed his character for decades to come. He faced particular challenges as the mixed-race, ostensibly black child of a white mother, which inevitably made it harder for mother and son to recognize themselves in each other in the critical early stages of his infancy, despite his mother’s apparent strengths at being a committed and effective nurturer. Additionally, growing up in a fatherless home, at least after his namesake left the family well before young Barry was two, posed another significant challenge, further complicated by the fact that Obama Sr.’s departure left his son the only black face in an otherwise white family.

In the wake of that departure, Obama’s young mother and maternal grandparents, with whom they lived, consciously kept his father alive in his imagination as a positive, idealized figure, a process movingly detailed in Dreams from My Father, the title of which alone announces the success of their efforts. His book attests to the power of his mother’s mythmaking on another level: Barack Obama is a skilled storyteller and mythmaker in his own right. Over the course of a psychoanalytic treatment the same stories change and have more complex meanings. In the case of Obama’s book, however, his stories endure permanently in the form in which they were written, not changing with the advent of his new understanding or unearthed memories.

The potential lasting impact of some of those childhood challenges can’t be overstated, and Obama’s early childhood experiences deeply influenced his adult perceptions of self and society. I am particularly drawn to the mental attitudes that an individual demonstrates toward aggression. Anxiety about destructiveness—either destroying or being destroyed—gives rise to defenses aimed at protecting the personality; these anxieties shift over time, forming patterns that become character traits. Klein labeled these attitudes the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position, and a person can continually alternate between the two throughout childhood and adult life as he seeks to modify his fears that hate or aggression will destroy what he values as good. Our analysis of Obama traces the roots and presence of these two positions past and present, highlighting both his strengths and weaknesses. By revealing when and how he shifts between the two positions, we can make connections that help explain his behavior with his colleagues and family, with his wife and children, with Democrats and Republicans, and with supporters, critics, and the media.

Psychoanalysis is not a linear process; at times its recurring circular patterns more closely resemble a spiral, repeatedly shifting back from present to past to present again. Accordingly, we take as our starting point the present and recent past, especially the president’s first years in office, after which even the more casual observers were left with questions, including:


    •  How does he come across so differently to different people yet remain an enigma to many?

    •  How does he attract identification from such a wide variety of people yet leave so many of them disappointed?

    •  Why has someone who campaigned for change so often seemed so tentative?

    •  What lies behind his exceptional facility with language—and why do his actions so rarely live up to his words?

    •  Why is he so driven to compromise, settling for positions that leave so few people genuinely satisfied?

    •  Why is he drawn to charismatic, narcissistic men who ultimately let him down?

    •  Why does he appear to resist confronting authority figures?

    •  What is the source of his famous, Zen-like calm, and how and at what cost does he maintain it?

    •  Does his reluctance to challenge the relentless attacks by his opponents mean that he doesn’t recognize the hatred behind those attacks?

    •  If the president doesn’t see red states and blue states, what does he see?

    •  How was the raid on bin Laden—its planning, execution, and announcement—consistent with his character, and how was it not?


Any attempt to better understand Obama by putting him “on the couch” means that we have to put his supporters and detractors on the couch as well. His supporters in particular have exhibited an interesting evolution. Like any politician, Obama exists in the minds of his supporters as the sum of their countless individual projections onto him. But somehow Obama tapped into one segment of the electorate’s yearning to believe that he could be different, and we explore the extraordinary passion that he elicits in so many voters and the cycle of hope and disappointment that it frequently leaves in its wake.

Obama’s opponents are equally as passionate, if not more so, about the feelings aroused by their own projections onto the president, causing divisions that profoundly challenge Obama’s own drive to heal his psychic splits. Later on, I’ll discuss how the Republicans may in fact serve as Obama’s best therapists if the vehemence of their opposition grows strong enough to break through his denial about the destructiveness of their intentions. We’ll also look at the Tea Party movement, using a psychoanalytical perspective to expose its rigid adherence to the paranoid-schizoid position of fear of the “Other.” The more Obama speaks of accommodation, the more anxious and frightened the Tea Party becomes, ultimately justifying murderous aggression in the name of self-defense against its perceived enemies. The party members’ paranoid anxiety leads them to conflate thought with action, which tends to encourage acts of violence, aimed at eradicating all perceived evil.

As the toxic divisions between our parties and the rapid and mysterious rise of the Tea Party make clear, it is essential to the health of our nation that we think in a richer way about our leaders and our relationships with them. Thinking about the psychology of leadership and leaders and our relationship to them is an essential component of a healthy body politic. By developing the skills to decode Obama’s behavior, we’ll improve our ability to make informed choices and keep our democracy vibrant and growing.

My decision to analyze our presidents has its roots in wondering about the ways their psyches and the external and internal pressures they feel influence the difficult job they are trying to do. But what really propelled me in the case of our current president was being struck by what seemed like a disconnect between Candidate Obama and President Obama. I wanted to understand that better, since in this case I don’t think it’s simply a matter of a politician promising one thing and doing something else. And I was interested in how and why we, by an overwhelming majority, chose Obama to be our leader.

At the end of the 2007 edition of Bush on the Couch I predicted that our nation might “search for someone completely different from Bush in the 2008 election, someone not male or white,” citing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as mother and father figures to choose from. “But simply enlisting an overtly different parent to brush the Bush disaster under the carpet will work no better than changing the Band-Aid on a fracture,” I added. “Only a true awareness of our national fracture can lead to real action, carrying us out of our self-imposed ignorance and denial into the painful but clarifying light of day.”

President Obama seemed to the majority of voters to carry that message of our need to heal, the need to recognize that the country can unite under shared ideals—and that we are all—Republican and Democrat alike—Americans first. Many Independents and Republicans voted for him, as did the vast majority of Democrats. The tears of joy on election night celebrated that we had actually elected an African-American president. Yet somehow that excitement has died down as his message of common ground has gotten more and more lost. And our national fracture persists and deepens.

Applied psychoanalysis is significantly different from my clinical work. Obama is not in the office with me, so I cannot use two of the fundamental tools of my profession—transference (my patient’s thoughts and feelings about me) and countertransference (my thoughts and feelings about my patient). Yet of all the people I know through literature—fiction and nonfiction alike—Barack Obama has the ability to be with the reader in the moment, whether past or present.

Even a book-length analysis requires omissions that potentially remove layers of detail and some of the genuine richness from both President Obama and my thoughts about him. This limitation reminds me of the first movie Obama took his wife, Michelle, to, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s meditation on race relations in everyday life—which takes place on the hottest day of the year and ends with a fire that burns down a pizza parlor in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. If it were real life, that fire would be merely a brief item on the eleven o’clock news, but the movie tells a rich and complex story about what leads to the fire and the characters involved—something we wouldn’t know from watching a simple newscast. In news stories, the forces leading up to a sound bite often get lost, though even there we get isolated glimpses of “different” Obamas that seem illuminating: Obama the candidate, then the president lost in New Orleans or eloquent in Tucson. We build up individual snapshots over time, and hopefully our thoughts and reactions change and evolve to match current events. But even when we pay attention to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, we never quite get to the man behind the man or to the boy inside the man. That is what I hope to provide with this book.

Talking about the boy inside the man puts me in mind of a cautionary note I should include here. Several readers found Bush on the Couch anxiety-provoking; it stirred up feelings about their own personal lives and relationships. This could also happen to readers of this book, despite the subject being the psychodynamics of President Obama. Hopefully the experience will be enriching to the reader, despite possible discomfort caused.

Obama invites fantasies of hope, of yearning for something different and better. This book explores the possibilities of understanding him, so the reader can make sense of his or her own experience. President Obama has the power of his office, and we hope to develop our own powers of observation and understanding. Only in this way can we grasp the meanings behind how he relates to and exercises that power. By doing so we can also better understand our own reactions to this complex man.

Excerpted from Obama on the Couch by Dr. Justin A. Frank. Copyright 2011 by Dr. Justin A. Frank. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Obama on the Couch: Interview with Justin Frank, M.D.


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