Never in my lifetime has there been such a thoughtful, elegant, and eloquent President of the United States as Barack Obama. He started first in Chicago as a community organizer. But it was his Boston Keynote Address that grabbed our imagination: he didn’t see Red and Blue states, but the United States. So as President he tried to manage the rigid partisanship he faced by compromise and reason. But the GOP obstructed his efforts at every turn. Still, he never stopped trying – so much so that he began to suffer from “obsessional bipartisan disorder.”
As a psychoanalyst I recognize the roots of Obama’s passionate idealism lie in two spheres – his parents were from different cultures and separated when he was an infant; he was biracial – half black and half white. Thus he strove to create a united internal parental couple to guide him, and he tried to find internal common ground between his black and white selves.
That past, powerfully nurtured by a loving mother and her attentive parents, helped drive him to value having a loving family of his own – and he found that in Michelle Robinson’s Chicago family. Between them they created their own new family – strong and loving – whose growth and development all Americans have at times been privileged to witness.
In my consulting room I examine how the past unconsciously influences the present. People keep their past alive both intentionally and unwittingly, and I’ve seen how a president’s public life often reflects past influences, dreams, and conflicts. For the most part, in Obama’s case, those influences pushed him to try to bring Americans together, to find out what we had in common. He did so against overwhelming odds, because many of us pushed back against a black president and his black family – unwilling to accept his ideas and ideals.
His farewell speech gave clear evidence of his resilience in the face of those odds. He said that discussions with those who violently disagree helped strengthen him. He expressed gratitude to all Americans for giving him the honor to be our president.
However, psychoanalytic exploration, like democracy, can be contentious. It is important to see how an inspiring past can also be an imprisoning one. Obama’s need to see “one America” kept him from following a central tenet of his farewell speech about the importance of law in democratic life. He said that “we built an order based on principles, not just power: rule of law, human rights, etc.” Later on he said that peril posed to our democracy by violent fanatics and autocrats could lead to “a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable.” He also warned that “if the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world the likelihood of war within and between nations increases.”
He is right, but as Adlai Stevenson once said, “It’s easier to have principles than to live up to them.” Twice early in his presidency, Obama was dominated by his past need to find unity and family at the expense of following the “law that holds leaders accountable.” He did not prosecute any members of the Bush Administration for their abuse of the law, which enabled them to get us into that intractable and tragic Middle East war. He did not prosecute the bankers for their financial crimes against the citizens of our nation.
After taking office, Obama said we must “turn the page” and move forward, and pushed for economic recovery and establishing health care reform – both essential political efforts. But turning the page is not the same as tearing it out of a book. That book contains a past that affects present and future – his and ours. And, as Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.”
So I felt a different sense of loss – of the promise he once offered us. As successful as his eight years in office were, progress is about more than improving our economy, health care, or even modifying the evils of racism and sexism. Progress is about holding leaders – political and economic – accountable. If Obama did that, he would have helped us all feel stronger, and reminded everyone that America still stands for doing what is right.