Born Split: Healing the Black/White Divide
There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.
To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen—to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want while looking squarely at America as it is, to acknowledge the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.
—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
In the most important speech of his political career, then–Illinois State Senator Barack Obama told the 2004 Democratic National Convention that unity was part of what made America great: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America…. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about.”
That was then. After a year in office, with his first major policy initiative about to be prematurely written off as a failure, now-President Obama attempted to silence his former opponent John McCain at the 2010 White House health care summit by drawing a sharp distinction between their campaign and postelection personae, silencing McCain curtly, saying, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
There may be one America, but it turns out that there are two Obamas.
When Obama shared his vision of unifying a divided America, and when he differentiated between Candidate McCain and Senator McCain—and in turn between his own candidate and presidential selves—he was evoking one of the most basic tools in infant psychological development that resonates in him still; indeed, it is at the heart of both his agenda for tomorrow and the challenges he faces today. To appreciate this from a Kleinian perspective requires a brief overview of some fundamental principles of infant psychological development. The most basic of these is splitting, a primitive mental process that orders the infant mind, protecting him from overwhelming confusion and chaos. Soon after birth the infant encounters a chaotic jumble of frustration and satisfaction, cold and warmth, anxiety and calm. The infant first attempts to order the chaos by dividing its experiences into good and bad: if the baby is experiencing discomfort or extreme hunger, it links those feelings with the image of a bad mother; if it experiences warmth and satiety, the baby is safe with its good mother.
Our response to our good and bad mothers evolves into a conflict between the desire to exploit the mother—to bite or suck her breast relentlessly—and the desire to preserve her based in need and love. As the infant develops, this conflict becomes the source of a broader anxiety about destroying or consuming the very thing it needs and loves, which expands into the need to manage its innate destructiveness and control its impulses to let bad, hateful feelings overtake good and loving ones. As the young child develops, its ability to create splits as a first line of defense against overwhelming anxiety is central to psychological progress, as is the ability to heal or unify the splits that are mentally created.
Like all of ours, Obama’s infancy and childhood included numerous events and circumstances whose psychic consequences would be felt as he developed his character for decades to come. And when Obama spins his crowd-pleasingly vivid images of an America whose racial, cultural, and political divisions have been repaired, he is drawing on his experience healing the splits he had to create to cope with the primitive anxieties of his early childhood. His rhetoric often invites us to identify with some of the splits he has struggled with on a personal level. But as we’ll see, Obama’s drive to heal his psychic splits is more pronounced than most people’s, because of the simple fact that as a biracial child he was born with a fundamental division that he has been trying to heal for his entire life, both within himself and in his relationships.
In retrospect, it seems almost predictable from a psychoanalytic point of view that a mixed-race person would someday attain the presidency, having developed in his pursuit of internal unity the skills of compromise and consensus building that would fuel his political progress. In Obama’s case, those skills were further and adversely influenced by the particulars of his family situation—namely, the fact that his parents separated within months of his birth, his mother leaving Hawaii and taking her infant son to Seattle, where she enrolled briefly at the University of Washington, followed by his father leaving Hawaii shortly before she returned there with one-year-old Barry, to pursue a fellowship at Harvard. His father’s absence perpetuated a split that could not be healed, twisting Obama’s unifying impulse (already stronger than it would be in children of single-race families) into a need that can never be satisfied.
Yet this capacity to contain and heal a split—a process that takes time and continues in some forms throughout life—was well established in young Barack Obama, just as it is in almost all children. The single most important element in any infant’s learning to heal splits is the loving connection to the primary caregiver, most often the mother. This is accomplished through regular periods of what is called “break and repair”: the mother inevitably has to put the nursing baby down, painfully breaking the connection for both baby and mother, who then returns to repair the damage done. The bad mommy breaks; the good repairs—helping the baby learn over time to tolerate splitting, to manage the experience of having good and bad mommies—and to know that the good mommy will return even when her absence causes him pain. As the baby internalizes the mother’s love, splitting lessens in degree and intensity, and the baby develops confidence in his love for her, and in the environment in general.
The image of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, which Obama has presented in his memoirs and to his biographers is of a nurturing and supportive mother, at least in his earliest years. Obama’s early biographer David Mendell wrote in his 2007 book, Obama: From Promise to Power, “As Obama himself will acknowledge, his mother went to great lengths to shore up her son’s confidence. She worried that because his father was absent and he was biracial he might fall prey to a lack of self-worth. ‘As a consequence, there was no shortage of self-esteem,’ Obama told me with a wry smile.” Much about the way Obama thinks and communicates indicates that he acquired the skills that derive from the healthy development of the splitting mechanism, a process that good parenting can facilitate. Tolerating ambivalence and ambiguity, for example, is made possible by a healthy splitting mechanism: in the president’s case, his capacity for holding conflicting ideas is famously well developed. In describing his core responsibilities as commander in chief to Bob Woodward (who wrote about the president in his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars), Obama gives special emphasis to the importance of his ability to balance some of the most profound and antithetical truths with which a president must come to terms: “So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary and war at some level is an expression of human folly.” Obama’s remarkable capacity to contain such profound opposites is itself different from simple splitting: there is no projection or idealization, and disconnecting them from thought mutes emotions. This expanded capacity is called “dissociation”—something active in Obama since early childhood—where feeling and thought become totally disconnected. It enables Obama to talk in a matter-of-fact way about what for most of us would be highly emotionally charged issues.
The phenomena of splitting and projection help us understand another fundamental psychological structure that this analysis will draw upon frequently. When we split our internal world as well as our perception of the external world into good and bad, we experience pain as a destructive attack from outside the self; this allows us to keep all goodness safe inside. This begins a process of establishing the two opposing attitudes that Klein noted the infant demonstrates toward aggression: the “paranoid-schizoid position,” in which aggression is perceived as emanating from outside the self and the infant feels anxiety about being attacked, and the “depressive position,” in which aggression is experienced as coming from within the self and the infant feels anxiety about being hurtful in a way that might harm a loved one. These fundamental psychic positions persist throughout life and determine perception of self and other as well as the approach to new experiences.
One way to understand the difference between the positions is to consider different responses to having a fight on the telephone with a friend. A person in the depressive position feels concern for the people he loves and feels responsible if he has injured them in some way; he might say, “I can’t believe I just yelled at my friend,” feeling guilt and remorse for what he did. Someone in the paranoid-schizoid position might say, “My friend is so abrupt, always hanging up on me,” and experience anxiety over the prospect of his friend’s telling others about his behavior.
Everyone moves between the depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions throughout life, and we will examine some of Obama’s shifts in the chapters ahead. A person firmly rooted in the depressive position takes responsibility and feels genuine concern for others based on self-knowledge of his own aggression and is generally mentally healthy and mature. But a healthy dose of an unhealthy-sounding term—paranoia—is also important in a political leader, and eschewing paranoid anxieties by trying extra hard to see the point of view of an attacker or enemy can lead to a host of problems. Obama often seems genuinely unparanoid and unprepared for the hatred of his opponents—from the irrationality of the Birthers to the noncooperation of the Republicans—despite the evidence before his very eyes. Nor does he grasp the degree to which his opponents—like most people—are dominated by the paranoid-schizoid position of black-and-white thinking; thus, in the bruising and ultimately fruitless battle to win Republican support for health care reform, he failed to see that their rebranding as “death panels” a provision for end-of-life counseling—originally supported by their own party—was evidence of the opposition’s inability to face its own destructiveness or to recognize the essential humanness of the “Other” against which it is opposed.
Though Obama often fails to adequately parry some of his most vehement objectors, he excels in demonstrating compassion and winning hearts and minds. Compassion and acceptance of the “Other” are essential to the depressive position. Obama had to develop these qualities in response to the natural split of being born biracial at a time when racial attitudes in this country were far less evolved and little was known about the psychological impact of a mixed-race heritage. But subsequent studies have shown that biracial children are more prone to experiencing shame and isolation, stemming from the feeling that they don’t belong or that there is something wrong with them.
Surrounded by his mother and her parents, Barry was the only black face in a white family after his father’s departure. Splitting is writ large in biracial children, who are born with two racial inheritances, and reconciling that split can pose significant challenges. Biracial people have paradoxical experiences, feeling they don’t belong to one particular group while being somehow comfortable in many differently composed groups. The tension between comfort and discomfort can exist within the self: biracial people feel their otherness on a regular basis, constantly facing ambivalence and feeling the need to overcome it by identifying with one race or another. They are neither white nor black, but both white and black. Obama is both the Other and his own Other; it’s like being a stranger from himself and yet totally familiar with himself at the same time. And otherness carries with it specialness, a sense of being different from those around you, whether for bad or good.
Healthy splitting allowed him to feel his genuine goodness inside himself through identification with his white mother. But as he decided to self-identify as black, Obama faced the danger that fully embracing his blackness would risk destroying his deeply loved internal mother. While the biracial person must heal the split along internal racial lines by having his white self get along with his black self, Obama had to bear in mind this other self still existing inside that pushed itself forward when his black self threatened to ignore it.
His mother appeared to recognize the pitfalls of young Barry’s circumstances—aware that his black identity might be obscured by being surrounded by his white family—and provided him with many opportunities to keep his blackness as something to be prized and be aware of more often than when he looked in the mirror, promoting the contributions of black musicians to the arts, for example, and teaching her son that “to be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny,” he wrote in Dreams from My Father. But despite her efforts to shield her son, Obama in his later youth would become deeply aware of shame and its effect on African-American people. We see several episodes in Dreams from My Father. The usually socially adept Obama, in his desire to belong to a group, impulsively says embarrassing things—such as criticizing a Chicago community member whose blue contact lenses obscured her brown eyes, and by extension her racial identity. The shame and inhibition that follow such embarrassing interludes may be fleeting, but the feeling of not belonging is a recurring theme in Obama’s memoir. At a deeper level we see in Obama’s reaction to the blue contacts a projection of his fear of his own desire to belong being so great that it might obscure his essential black identity. He criticized her for wanting to do what he so desperately wished for himself, projecting that desire into her and turning it into something to criticize.
Earlier in Dreams from My Father, he vividly recounts a scene from his time in Indonesia, where his mother moved Barry at the age of six to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro. His mother got a job at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, where, in “the pure and heady breeze of privilege,” Barry waited in the library one afternoon while his mother did some work. After finishing his comic books and homework that “my mother made me bring,” he focuses on a collection of Life magazines:
“I thumbed through the glossy advertisements—Goodyear Tires and Dodge Fever, Zenith TV (‘Why not the best?’) and Campbell’s Soup (‘Mm-mm good!’), men in white turtlenecks pouring Seagram’s over ice as women in red miniskirts looked on admiringly—and felt vaguely reassured. When I came upon a news photograph, I tried to guess the subject of the story before reading the caption.”
When he comes to an image of “an older man in dark glasses and a raincoat walking down an empty road,” he is unable to guess what the photograph is about, his confusion compounded on the following page’s close-up shot of the same man’s hands. “They had a strange, unnatural pallor, as if blood had been drawn from the flesh. Turning back to the first picture, I now saw that the man’s crinkly hair, his heavy lips and broad, fleshy nose, all had this same uneven, ghostly hue.”
Deducing that the man in the photo “must be terribly sick,” Barry learns from the accompanying article that the subject of the photographs had undergone a chemical treatment to lighten his black complexion. “He expressed some regret about trying to pass himself off as a white man, was sorry about how badly things had turned out,” he learns from the article. “But the results were irreversible. There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.”
Barry’s response is immediate but remarkably short-lived:
I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page. Did my mother know about this? What about her boss—why was he so calm, reading through his reports a few feet down the hall? I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show them what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance. But something held me back. As in a dream, I had no voice for my newfound fear. By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place. The room, the air, was quiet as before.
When reporters researched the story during the presidential campaign, they couldn’t find any such article in Life or elsewhere, according to Obama’s biographer David Remnick. As a psychoanalyst, I’m less interested in the concrete existence of the story than in its meaning, although the possibility that Obama might have made it up merits comment. If anything, it underscores the fact that these ideas are important to him—most particularly his rage at discovering—at nine years old—that one race could evoke such extreme self-hatred in another. Clearly, a nine-year-old boy is not writing his memoir, so his rage as remembered is at least questionable. But how the story is constructed bears even further analysis.
In the telling of this story we see several themes that recur throughout the memoir (and the life it chronicles): the maintenance of quiet and calm, keeping fears to oneself; using both sleeping and waking dreams as metaphor as well as literal events; and the curiosity and hunger for knowledge and understanding that led him to analyze and invent stories for the pictures he saw in the magazine. That curiosity drives a striking progression from the innocence of a childhood filled with homework and comic books, where race isn’t an issue, to the wider adult world of automobile and liquor ads, with their presumably white models of grown-up happiness. Though we don’t know the races of the models in the ads, it is implied that the victims of violence he sees on other pages of the magazine are people of color—Japanese victims of retaliatory hatred and the black victim of internal self-hatred.
The experience introduced him to a “newfound fear,” the fear of self-destruction. The photograph implied to him that people want so much to assimilate that they will kill off parts of themselves in order to do so. Self-hatred is not just the result of trying to change and blend in; it can derive from the belief that it’s better to attack oneself than have someone else do it. In that scenario, the would-be victim identifies with the aggressor and internalizes the aggression, becoming a self-hating punisher instead of attacking someone else. Obama confronts this fact of black American life for the first time in the story of the skin-lightening treatment gone wrong and in the knowledge that there were thousands more like the man in the article. It was a vivid illustration that the black/white split he would become driven to heal can cause even worse, “irreversible” damage if addressed in the wrong way. This is a vital and painful lesson about the adult life before him, a far cry from his homework and comic books, to which he has an understandably visceral response.
Yet his response, though intense, passes quickly, and it’s revealing that we don’t see the internal process of self-regulation through which the distress is understood and released. Instead, the calm is located in the setting around him—the magazines in the right places, the quiet, still air. What’s important to Barry is that he present a calm veneer to his mother, as if he internalized the orderliness of the library. He has taken great pains to present himself this way ever since, as if being “no drama Obama” were second nature. We’re left to wonder if his calm exterior actually reflects a comparable internal state or instead seeks to obscure from the world its internal opposite. And if the calm is genuine, the question remains whether it was won by engaging in a variation of the assimilation he was reading about by killing off the fearful and furious parts of himself—a question made more relevant by his relative lack of outrage at some of the disasters he has faced during his presidency, from the BP oil spill to the Tucson murders.
The memory’s placement within Dreams from My Father also bears examination. His travels to the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta open the chapter that immediately follows his first mention of being aware of his father’s absence—musing about why his father might have abandoned the family at a time when he “was too young to realize that [he] was supposed to have a live-in father”—that closes the previous chapter. It is a swift and sudden example of what Obama as president would call “turning the page.” The juxtaposition implies a connection between the self-hatred in the magazine and his father’s departure—as if young Barry is looking for an excuse to justify his father’s decision to leave. More poignant is the possibility that the absence of a black mirroring parent could leave the boy vulnerable to the rage and confusion over black identity that the story reveals.
His response to that article is also a harbinger of further revulsion, this time at himself and his own discomfort at being an outsider, at not belonging. It was less than a year after reading the story that his mother uprooted Barry once more, moving him from Jakarta back to Hawaii to attend the prep school Punahou School, which would help prep him to be “American.” At that new school he had a fourth-grader’s version of the behavior that had given him stomach knots in the embassy in Indonesia. In his lifelong struggle to belong, at times he puts the need to escape his feelings of being an outsider ahead of empathy and friendship, never more poignantly than in the story of the scene with the only other black student in his grade at Punahou, the plump and friendless little girl to whom he gave the pseudonym Coretta. Barry initially avoids Coretta, but one day at recess they start interacting—teasing, laughing, and chasing each other until they fall to the ground together.
When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us.
“Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!”
The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.
“She’s not my g-girlfriend,” I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. “Coretta’s got a boyfriend! Why don’t you kiss her, mister boyfriend?”
“I’m not her boyfriend!” I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. “Leave me alone!” I shouted again.
At that point Coretta runs away, and recess is soon over. But afterward young Barry is “haunted by the look on Coretta’s face … her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal…. But I didn’t even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I’d been tested and found wanting.”
This painful admission is really impressive for any politician to make in print—even if he’s talking about his younger self. He clearly defines what he did to Coretta as an act of betrayal and describes feeling shame. Still, he finds a way to conclude with a reversal: “A part of me felt trampled on, crushed, and I took refuge in the life that my grandparents led.” Though he is the one who humiliated her, his words indicate that he may have suddenly identified with her feelings of having been betrayed by himself, one part of himself trampling on another.
Obama wrote that he was jolted out of his shame and guilt a few months later by the news that his father was coming to visit from Kenya. It was the first and last time he’d see his father. His apprehension leading up to the visit gave way to bragging rights, as Barry told his classmates that his father was a prince.
Obama had already begun to feel, despite his unusual name and skin color, that he was no longer an outsider. His father’s talk to his fourth-grade class was “transformative,” he wrote, as measured by the look of satisfaction on even Coretta’s face—a look he recalls years later, right before making his own speaking debut at Occidental College. Years after the incident on the playground, Coretta remained a powerful symbol of the divide within himself that he had to heal or risk self-betrayal. She lives on as a shadow to such an extent that I think that we on the left have become Obama’s modern-day Coretta—as he turns his back on the deep connection we made in 2008.
The psychological challenge of Obama’s biracial heritage both fueled a drive to unify splits and provided an opportunity to develop a remarkable facility for doing so. The normal process of coming to terms with both loving and hating each parent was for him accompanied by a need to come to terms with loving and hating the two races that his parents embodied—and loving and hating both the black and white parts of himself. This was complicated by having a black skin color and features that invited other blacks to comfortably express their hatred of white people to him and the fact that young Obama—who grew up loved and cared for by three white people—was uncomfortable getting too close to those black friends who freely expressed their hatred of whites.
We see in his drive and desire to heal his racial split the roots of Obama’s lifelong and well-documented history of bringing people together—from being a community organizer to uniting warring factions as president of the Harvard Law Review and into his political career, in which he has operated from the unconscious belief that his hard-won resolution of his internal struggle can be replicated in the world at large. The convention-keynote call for a unified America that put him on the national map in 2004 can be traced directly to his need to heal his internal racial split, which he came close to acknowledging in an interview with Charlie Rose later that year. Asked if “the diversity of [his] own ethnic background … [had] made [him] a better political animal,” he said, “If you’re half black and half white in a highly racially charged environment … then you’ve got to figure out how do you bring all these things together in yourself, but also how do you help bring it together outside of yourself.” In the same interview, he told Rose, “I think that these elections are going to be won and lost over the next decade on the basis of who offers a more plausible argument about how we integrate this country along a whole host of lines.” It’s telling that he sees as his mission the need to “integrate the country,” but the split that he is driven to heal politically is not simply between races but rather transcends color: When one of his aunts in Kenya would stereotype different tribes, of which there were forty, he would get angry and say to her, “It’s thinking like that that holds us back. We’re all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe.”
Representing two races strengthens Obama in many ways. He is able to be at home in many different places just because that split has remained in place: he can be white with whites, black with blacks, Muslim with Muslims, Christian with Christians—and all the while keep a part of himself private and unavailable. This allows him to appear to be comfortable wherever he is because he doesn’t completely fit in—and he is the only one who knows it. And the part that does fit in does so completely, as he easily puts the rest of himself in the others’ shoes. Audiences marvel at his ease, as described by journalists at his brief visit to Indonesia on November 9, 2010. The BBC newswriter Guy DeLauney was impressed with Obama’s “personal touch with great aplomb: reminiscing about the Indonesia he once knew.” He added that the “young audience at the University of Indonesia cheered, and much of the rest of the country was charmed. They could perhaps once again think of the president of the United States as one of their own.”
His split parts have evolved into different self-states that convince most audiences—and at times even himself—of his total authenticity. Every one of us has different personal, social, and occupational self-states that are genuine self-identities. Obama’s identities are there for all to see, yet observers continue to question who he genuinely is. And the elusiveness of his identity, coupled with his ability to address different groups with great conviction and connection, can also get him into trouble—as he saw while telling his Indonesian audience that he felt like he was home drew fire from the right. In that moment he seems all too willing to turn his back on his American self. Obama may be so drawn to assuming different self-states due in part to his being from a broken home, which challenged his navigating the biracial split.
Faced with the isolation of his birth and an extraordinary intelligence and self-confidence cultivated by his mother, Obama set out to resolve his split and turn it to his advantage. Thus he becomes the community organizer whose black colleague John Owens told the biographer David Remnick that Obama “always wanted to be evenhanded in his analysis of things. In that regard, he was able to have stronger relationships with whites more than the average African-American.” Nevertheless, in his student days, “he consciously chose politically active black students as his friends because he feared being labeled a ‘sellout,’” according to his biographer David Mendell. “In trying to convey an image of being a true black, he would sometimes overreach to gain acceptance among his black peers.” Years later, Mendell pointed out, Obama “still had a tendency to overreach in order to fit in with some urban blacks,” exclaiming “What’s up, brother?” at times that critics deemed “just a little too much.”
As skilled as he became at navigating his racial split, Obama ultimately resolved it without actually healing it. Racial splitting is about identity, and the object of mixed feelings—the object of ambivalence, if you will—is one part of the self that may be called the “not me” self. To calm that anxiety, Obama chose in high school to self-identify as black. The effect of this decision was far more than simply mental or psychological: “According to his math and science teacher, Pal Eldredge, the way Barry carried himself changed,” Remnick wrote. “‘His gait, the way he walked, changed,’ he said.” The transformation came in the wake of Barry’s decision to stop writing letters to his absent father, Remnick reports. “His effort to understand himself was a lonely one. Touchingly, awkwardly, he was giving himself instructions on how to be black.” At that point his mother was also absent, far away in Indonesia, having entrusted Barry to the care of her parents in Hawaii, where the black community was a small element of what was a generally racially diverse population. With neither parent available, he was unable to work through his contradictory feelings—love and hate; appreciation and rage—for both parents, limiting his ability to heal the racial split that his black self-identification required. Instead, he developed dissociated self-states that comprised complete personalities and that cohabited without commingling, rather than fully facing his internal conflict of having a white part of him that wants to kill the black part of him, as well as vice versa, as horrific as that sounds. He is able to be comfortable in different places without ever totally healing, which would require putting those parts of him into direct internal conflict first.
One milestone in Obama’s resolving the black/white split by self-identifying as black was his decision to change his name from Barry to Barack. Claiming that his father’s name was an attempt to heal, he officially decided that he wanted to find a place where he belonged, and he identified that place as the black community. Whereas his father had adopted the name Barry in an attempt to fit in—calling himself Barack in Kenya and Barry in the United States—Obama chose to go by the name Barack to define himself by not fitting in. He remains comfortable with whites, but his most profound community is black. At another psychological level, he has successfully blended black and white both by dint of deep self-reflection and because he had so many varied life experiences in childhood. His capacity to tolerate differences and think about them has become as great a strength as his ability to seem fully at home in widely divergent settings.
Remarkably, the decision to change his name is a turning point that isn’t directly addressed in his memoir. However, the change is suggested in an exchange immediately after a scene in which he clumsily tries to question how genuinely black a fellow college student is by suggesting he change his name from Tim to Tom—an exchange that dramatizes the tension of maintaining his own black/white split and the important role that a name can play in his longed-for resolution of that split. At Occidental College, still maintaining his secret white self, “Barry” Obama tried to belong to a black political group of students who didn’t know of his mixed-race heritage. He never felt authentic, however, until he met Regina, the black student to whom he revealed his full name, and the one person to whom he felt he didn’t have to lie. In the memoir Regina is introduced when the black student who criticizes Barry’s Tim/Tom insult censures him for being seen reading Heart of Darkness. Barry first defends himself before acknowledging the book’s racism to Regina: “The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”
When Regina asks why he’s reading it, he hesitates before admitting that
“the book teaches me things…. About white people, I mean. See the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”
“And that’s important to you.”
My life depends on it, I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell Regina that. I just smiled and said, “That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.”
The story continues as Barry tells Regina his real name is Barack and that he was, like her, raised by a single mother. She, in turn, describes her South Side Chicago childhood, a story that for young Obama “evoked a vision of black life in all its possibility, a vision that filled me with longing—a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history.” It is a remarkably candid scene, particularly the admission that “[his] life depends on” understanding hate and the description of his yearning for a place to belong. He sees that hatred is based on fear and that he should be his own man, rather than simply calling himself an Americanized or sanitized version of his true self. He can be proud of who he is and not have to instill fear in whites or fear others. This is a central need of his—to explain hate so he can apply reason to it and work toward resolving his black/white split and finding a place he can feel he belongs.
* * *
As Obama’s first term in the White House has progressed, it has become ever more clear that he is facing another major internal split that has not been resolved: the split between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. Obama’s health care summit remark to John McCain makes clear that he not only recognizes the split between candidate and president, he accepts it. His followers have been less willing to accept what they see as a significant gulf between the man they elected and the man in office. Much has been written, even by Obama’s supporters, about his inability as president to live up to the promise he demonstrated as a candidate. This is not lost on Obama; in the aftermath of what was arguably his most presidential action to date—the risky, heroic raid on Osama bin Laden—he was quick to remind 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft to “keep in mind that obviously when I was still campaigning for president, I had said that if I ever get a shot at bin Laden we’re gonna take it,” even if it was in Pakistan, as if pointing out a campaign promise he had kept. As we’ll see, using Klein’s positions as a guide, Candidate and President Obama respond to aggression in significantly different ways. Obama’s experience with his biracial split suggests both a level of comfort in containing and sustaining such a split and a history of settling for a resolution that stops short of actually healing such a division. Unlike the biracial split, however, he can’t effectively self-identify as only one or the other—as only president or only candidate, especially as the 2012 campaign grows closer.
In the meantime, his lack of resolution is having profoundly and progressively adverse effects on his administration and the country. People who have put their internal splits into perspective can be more decisive because they are not afraid of destroying other parts of themselves. Instead, Obama feels compelled to protect part of himself, which comes out in his worrying about being one-sided or hurting people he has decided against. This informs his impulses to give something to everyone and to make extensive compromises to his own agenda and ideals, from preserving tax cuts on the wealthiest to supporting the military’s solitary confinement of suspected WikiLeaks source Private Bradley Manning in 2011. He is more and more disconnected from his espoused principles, from who he is—or from the constitutional lawyer he once was—because of this tendency.
Now, in the second half of his first term, the major choice he appears to have is whether to act like a candidate or the president. As a candidate, Obama had a clear idea of the external source of aggression directed at him—first from the Clinton camp, then from the McCain campaign—and histories of the 2008 presidential campaign have repeatedly cited the purposeful focus of the Obama organization’s relentless drive toward electoral victory. Regardless of his compelling calls for unity, Obama was, in Kleinian terms, effectively operating from the paranoid-schizoid position, clearly identifying the opponents to his candidacy and methodically defeating them. His paranoid anxiety served him well in his efforts to fend off attacks from his challengers, who were unambiguously in opposition to him, their aggression clearly sourced from outside the self. Though nominally a senator, his role as an elected official placed so few demands on him that no splitting was required to thrive in his pursuit of a singular purpose.
As president, the situation couldn’t be more different. He is no longer in opposition to a single external rival. He is attacked by both the Left and particularly the Right, whose unfiltered animosity toward him is often as pure and persistent as the primal threats and aggression experienced in infancy. And he appears to be profoundly aware of his capacity for destructiveness; hence the tentativeness that is often identified as hesitancy by both critics and (sometimes former) supporters. His degree of power ironically puts him into the hyperresponsible position of recognizing the dangers of using it. His assumption of the presidency has meant that Obama has shifted away from the paranoid-schizoid position that served him so well in the course of the election campaign; now he operates from the depressive position, aware that his aggression may damage fellow Americans—whatever their political party. And because he has evolved into the depressive position, he has to cope constantly with the anxiety that he has the power to destroy the nation he loves.
But this is a false depressive position, embraced to allay his anxiety and fear as it serves his need to see us as one America. Were he not in that state, he could be far more decisive than he has been heretofore. His decisiveness in ordering the Navy SEALs to take out bin Laden is a case in point. There is no ambivalence about bin Laden whatsoever, so having him killed—though clearly bold and risky—does nothing to bring him into the depressive position, which involves ambivalently contending with loving and hating the same person. Obama made that clear to everyone at the end of his 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft. He said, “As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”
However, his relationship to his depressive position is still evolving. If it were complete, he would recognize the profound destructiveness aimed at him from many on the right and would not persist in his drive for bipartisanship at all costs. Instead, he manifests only some of the attributes of the depressive position. Obama knows he is president of all the people, which makes it harder to attack individuals or particular groups who attack him. Thus the Tea Party can spew hatred and the Republican Senate caucus can refuse to cooperate, but crushing the Tea Party or giving up on the possibility of bipartisan cooperation goes against his profound urge to heal the splits he sees in the nation. He uses the reality of being responsible for all Americans as a defense against expressing his rage at the Tea Party’s destructiveness.
There is another way in which reality functions as a defense: by saying that there are things that he just must do as president, he can sidestep internal conflict while justifying his behavior. The reality of foreign threats merges with potential psychological maneuvers that may allow him to externalize whatever internal murderous impulses he recognizes and redirect them toward Pakistan and Libya.
Domestically, however, he must accommodate right-wing attackers because they are Americans and passionate and deserve his respect. Projections are harder to perceive when they fit with a real situation, and the fact that they are Americans keeps him from facing his own rage and taking a tougher domestic approach. When Obama accuses Osama bin Laden of having brutally murdered so many innocent Americans, his is a tragically accurate assessment; but drone attacks that kill many innocent Pakistani citizens can be subtly overlooked, and Osama bin Laden stays the monster, the only one.
Inevitably, there are other factors at play here, too. Contributing to his accommodating attitude and calm demeanor are character traits developed in his first eighteen years living in Hawaii and Indonesia, where the pace of life was slower, and races and cultures were far more mixed than in the mainland United States at the time. We’ll see that his desire for consensus is also fueled by his inability to accept the vehemence of his opposition—a denial that mirrors feelings about his unresolved relationship with his absent father that he can’t acknowledge in adulthood. But it’s clear that Obama, upon taking office, largely reclaimed the depressive position, mostly giving up his attacks on Republicans and instead becoming tentative and cautious—which has ultimately undermined his authority. In his move away from the kind of partisan presidential politics shamelessly practiced by George W. Bush, he has been so anxious not to attack Republicans that he hasn’t fully faced his paranoid fears, as well as the reality of his own hatred. But in going to great lengths to avoid this internal reality, Obama limited his own perspective on the campaign—accepting that it need only be oppositional rather than genuinely transformational. Instead he has redefined hatred by labeling his former attacks against the Republican opposition in 2008 as just part of campaigning and invited Republicans to collaborate as much as possible, even when it wasn’t getting him any Republican support in Congress.
Most recently Obama has been more concerned with the split caused by the ballot than by birth. He still at times resembles the candidate elected in 2008, inspiring us with his poetic visions of unity and purpose and still capable of going after an opponent with vigor and focus, the paranoid-schizoid position in action, as he did in the closing days of the 2010 midterm election. But he still muted his confrontational energy, at least toward his domestic opponents, in early 2011. Though his April 2011 speech in response to the Republican budget offered a spirited defense of progressive values and a promise that the proposed dismantling of Medicare was “not going to happen” on his watch, his delivery was far more muted than his language, and he elected to give the speech in the middle of the day when live viewership was minimal at best. Later, when he seemed to challenge Speaker of the House John Boehner in reference to the budget negotiations—“I said, ‘You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We’ll have that debate. You’re not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we’re stupid?’”—Boehner wasn’t present, and the challenge was heard and recorded only because there was an open mike nearby.
But he is more pervasively acting as Obama the president, negotiating the depressive position as he shows both love and hate for his rivals and critics—as well as the institutions behind some of the biggest challenges he has faced, from BP to the banks he saved—aware that due to the broad responsibilities of his office he can’t allow himself to inflict the destructiveness that he’s capable of. He is both candidate and president, and by switching back and forth, one part of him protects the other part from destruction or from having to be saved by projection: he doesn’t have to disavow parts of himself to avoid feeling anxious, because the destructive parts of himself are contained within. And at times he has to project the candidate part into his supporters so he can reject them and keep that part of himself “other.” It’s his supporters who insist that he not cave in to oil companies, not he. He is trying to compromise, even though he knows full well how destructive continued drilling and draining the earth is.
But the candidate and the president can have very different agendas, requiring Obama to manage yet another significant internal split. There’s a reason he often appears to be negotiating with himself, especially on such important issues as health care and the Bush tax cuts: his inner candidate and president not only sometimes have competing political priorities but operate from different mental positions. More often than not, the president’s depressive position wins out—as on the day after the 2010 midterm elections when he said, “I have got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.” But even that clear statement was evasive: as an analyst, I’m trained to consider how patients might have said or done things differently in the exchanges they report. In this case, Obama could have taken responsibility for not having fought hard enough and early enough to keep the people in office who really were strenuously supporting his efforts to make changes. He could have said that change is scary to everyone—even himself—and therefore changes take time. He could have said that the process of change needs to be protected, not destroyed. All would have fallen within his given responsibilities, but in the language of the sound bite, he didn’t give any of these specific reasons; in short, he didn’t fight.
Nevertheless, Obama has embraced the need to take responsibility more than most politicians in recent memory, and when he makes a mistake he acknowledges it—never more clearly than on that November morning. Ever the healer of splits, he also vowed that day that making progress was “going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.” The problem with Obama seeming so clear about his personal mistakes and therefore showing the depressive anxiety they represent—namely the fear of hurting others by an action taken, whether willfully or inadvertently—is that he adopts this same position when dealing with Wall Street as well as with Main Street, with BP as well as with the fishermen of New Orleans. He removes morality from the picture, because in his view everybody has a point and he is the president of all. But in so doing he risks betraying his fiercest allies—as he did Coretta—and in 2010 he saw them fall victim to the Republican machine. And he remains blind to one key mistake he made, his failure to explicitly and forcefully label the gangs of nay-sayers for what they really are.
Obama maintains what seems a genuine sense of responsibility to all Americans by taking an antiparanoid stance, but some paranoia is necessary and helpful for a president. For example, he underestimates the level of aggression focused on him, as when he laughed off the depth of the Birthers’ hatred in an August 2010 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, saying “I can’t spend all my time with my birth certificate plastered on my forehead.” And when he finally did move to silence the Birthers, he dismissed their campaign to discredit him as “silliness,” rather than the venal destructiveness at the heart of their efforts.
Williams’s interview also included Obama’s dismissal of Glenn Beck’s then-recent rally on the National Mall: “I did not watch the rally. I think that one of the wonderful things about this country is that at any given moment any group of people can decide, you know, ‘We want—our voices heard.’ And—and so, I think that Mr. Beck and the rest of those folks were exercising their rights under our Constitution exactly as they should.” He spoke about freedom of speech rather than the destructive content of that speech, avoiding the confrontational stance that Candidate Obama might have taken. He has so assiduously managed his own paranoid anxiety over the years that he has blind spots to the dangers posed by people who are stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position, which explains the ease with which he brushes them off and minimizes their threat. And when he does exhibit some paranoid anxiety, calling out BP weeks into the oil spill disaster, for example, his lack of conviction can be seen as a tempering of the paranoid-schizoid position: did anyone take him seriously when he claimed he wanted to find out whose butt to kick?
Still, there is no question that Obama’s passion lies in the drive to heal the split he sees as red and blue. And he sees speeches as transformative, no matter what actions are taken. His 2011 State of the Union address presented a litany of references to splits and their healing. He tried to heal the split between family and government by saying we are all in this together: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” After living through his mother’s sacrifices, it’s noteworthy that he asks families to sacrifice but does not ask the wealthy to sacrifice—locking more securely into place the split between rich and poor, something he says he’s sensitive to.
In that same speech he also tried to heal splits through belief, referring to our shared faith in the U.S. Constitution—a kind of belief, but one that is associated with action: “We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.” The irony is that splits persist, as in the disconnect between saying that “we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution” while tacitly condoning WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning’s solitary confinement, for example. He also tried to heal the split between past and present, telling Americans—including those supporters who still want him to prosecute members of the Bush administration for crimes against the Constitution—that it is “time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” This kind of healing is more manic than genuine, brushing under the rug the crimes of the past in the interest of the pressing problems of now.
Finally, repeatedly, he spoke to the need to heal the deep splits in his government that undermine his effectiveness. “Now is the time for both sides and both houses of Congress—Democrats and Republicans—to forge a principled compromise that gets the job done,” he said, adding a significant modifier as a reminder that principles don’t have to be sacrificed for compromise—yet the split between principle and compromise of principle persists inside Obama as the price he pays, and soon so will America as we know it pay, to satisfy his need to perceive both political parties as united.
And more than once he urged members of Congress to work together, using lofty language for practical goals: “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow…. I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all—for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”
Unfortunately for him, Obama must now either better manage or integrate the split and differing positions: once the 2010 midterm voters were counted (if not sooner), his efficacy as president depended on his effectiveness as a candidate for reelection, and vice versa. Obama’s experience managing and resolving his racial split may serve him here, if he is again able to resolve the split in a manner that empowers him to move forward forcefully. He cannot heal a split without facing the fact that there is a split—that he has repressed his rage at both parents and that the splits are really closer to repressions than to traditional good guy/bad guy splits. He cannot heal until he recognizes this; if he were my patient, I’d try to help him look at his fury and talk about it. On the other hand, he could be so familiar with containing such a profound split that he has developed a false sense of comfort and allowed his impulses to remain in muted conflict with each other, creating an inner gridlock that saps his effectiveness. In a time that demands an effective leader, the stakes for our nation couldn’t be higher—and, as we’ll see in the next chapter, his personal history may deprive him of an essential ingredient for healing the split and moving America forward.
© 2011 Dr. Justin Frank