Psychodynamic Case Study: President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama was the first African-American to be elected to the presidency. Obama was born in Hawaii to a Caucasian mother and a Kenyan father. Before Obama’s birth, both were students at the University of Hawaii. Obama called the autobiography he penned before the presidency Dreams From My Father (Barak Obama, 2012, Biography). This suggests that his life has been a quest in search of his father, a man who left him when he was two years old. However, it is equally possible to see Obama’s life as a man defined by women: his idealistic, ‘hippy’ mother whom he describes as an idealistic child of the 1960s, that took the young Barry to Indonesia where she briefly had another marriage, and also his grandmother, who raised him when his mother laws finishing her anthropological fieldwork (Barak Obama, 2012, Biography).
The psychodynamic view of psychology of Sigmund Freud suggests that the ‘family romance’ defines the developing psyche of every young child. With the male, this is called the Oedipal Complex, in which the young boy harbors murderous feelings about his father and desires his mother. Eventually, the young boy comes to identify with the father and emulate him, as a way of someday possessing a mother surrogate. Obama’s psychological development, however, was complicated by race: his father was African-American, and he physically resembled his father, but he was raised by Caucasian women. When he went to high school in Chicago, he identified with the African-American community, yet he also stood apart from this culture to some degree (Barak Obama, 2012, Biography). Ironically, in his community activism in Chicago Obama embodies the persona of his mother more than that of his father, who led a chaotic and undisciplined life after returning to Kenya.
To balance these competing claims to his identity — that of his father and mother — Obama, Freud might suggest, has developed a very strong superego. Although Obama described himself as very angry in his search for identity in Dreams From My Father, Obama has been described by those who know him as cool, almost academic in the way he analyzes the issues. Even as a senator, it was noted “he tends to underplay his knowledge, acting less informed than he is. He rarely accuses, preferring to talk about problems in the passive voice, as things that are amiss with us rather than as wrongs that have been perpetrated by them” (MacFarquhar: 2007: 1). His nickname is ‘No Drama Obama’ and although he is a charismatic speaker as well as erudite, it is said his campaign aides must often prod him to show passion. Many have cited his Harvard Law Review background (he was the editor while a student at Harvard) and his experience teaching constitutional law as the source of his scholarly demeanor. “He was grounded, comfortable in his own skin, knew who he was, where he came from, why he believed things,’ Kenneth Mack, a friend of Obama’s from Harvard and now a professor there, says. ‘When I read the book [Dreams From My Father], I was surprised — the confusion and the anger that he described, maybe they were there below the surface, but they were not manifest at all [on the surface]’” (MacFarquhar: 2007: 3).
In his politics, Obama has also been criticized for compromising traditional liberal values, such as his willingness to ‘bail out’ both banks and big business in the form of the American automotive industry — decisions that recent history has vindicated him for, many believe. Moreover, he did use his political clout to pass a historic act of healthcare legislation, using profound political capital to do so. Some of his critics believed this was a mistake, and that he should have focused more on the economy instead. Regardless it is a testimony to the fact that in terms of his actions, Obama is willing to ‘put himself on the line’ — but often quietly, in a non-demonstrative fashion, Obama is fundamentally a pragmatist, not an ideologue in a manner that seems to reject both the chaos of the lives of his parents, children of the 1960s. He has embraced and embodied some of their values — his father’s minority status, for example, and his mother’s passion for both justice and academia, yet translated these values into his own, highly developed and regimented way of governing his life. Obama’s resolution of the Freudian ‘family romance’ has been to create a strong superego to deal with his conflicted upbringing, in parents that offered role models he could not perfectly emulate or desire.
Barak Obama. (2012). Biography. Retrieved:
MacFarquhar, Larissa. (2007). The conciliator. The New Yorker. Retrieved:
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