The Ultimate Status-Seeker

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats (1919)1

In the past decade or so, millions of people endured shockingly brutal, lawless war-making and state terror on the part of Bush and his accomplices.  While millions were caught up in the whirlwind of destruction released by Bush et al., others back in the Homeland shook their heads in disbelief and disgust—and now shoulder the burdens of the staggering national debt and general wreckage of the economy.

A renewed interest in the psychoanalytic study of U.S. presidents has therefore emerged, most notably in analyst Justin Frank’s Bush on the Couch (2004).  Such character-studies are proving useful in evaluating candidates before they take office — or predicting the likely course of their decisions once they have been sworn in.  Indeed, Dr. Frank has recently published Obama on the Couch, an insightful study focusing on the troubled circumstances of Obama’s upbringing and his consequently over-conciliatory leadership style.  Highly informative and often convincing, the book to my mind is still entirely too sympathetic to Obama, a man whom Dr. Frank declares to be “generally in excellent mental health.”2  Certainly Obama’s penchant for blithely rationalizing illegal wa-making—or ordering illegal Drone attacks and assassinations—raises considerable doubts.

Any remaining illusions about a democratic electoral process, battered by the Supreme Court-enabled selection of Bush in 2000, have now been entirely shattered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (2010).  Yet Republicrat candidates, puppets of Goldman and other corporate patrons, nonetheless choose to run for personal motives as well.  Needless to say, those who aspire to the office of the U.S. Presidency are not overly conscientious about the veracity of what they say, claim to believe, or appear to act.  But what motivational force impels them to seek the office in the first place—undergoing a year-long rollercoaster ride of campaigning and primary contests (applause, adulation—but also demeaning ingratiation, placation, dissimulation, and constant travel)?

There is no single answer.  Manifest motives obviously include representing the interests of their super-wealthy patrons through passing legislation and curtailing regulatory enforcement (Romney).  But underlying personal motives may also include, among others:

  1. an authoritarian  desire to impose their will upon others, forcing recalcitrant citizens or defiant client-states into submission (Cheney; Hillary Clinton?);
  2.  an irresistible urge for destructive power on a mass scale, thereby satisfying sadistic (Bush) and/or predatory-vengeful impulses (Cheney).  Of course, once in office, the adrenalin-rush of exercising power on a grandiose scale — whether ordering Drone assassinations or “taking out” troublesome dictators, is a satisfaction few modern presidents have refused.

But perhaps the most common motive, unmistakably exhibited by Bill Clinton, is the pressing need for narcissistic self-aggrandisement.  My initial impression of the candidate Barack Obama was shared by many: the sense of a lack of any real convictions behind the often-soaring rhetoric of uplift and “hope.”  Obviously not all speechwriters are up to such phrasemaking as “a kinder, gentler nation” or “a thousand points of light” (P. Noonan, 1988-89), but Obama’s campaign rhetoric was a watered-down pablum of can-do inspirationalism and embarrassingly hackneyed, patriotic drivel.

Yet Obama’s paramount skill, his instrument, is undeniably his rhetorical talent. (“It’s a gift.”)  Indeed, Obama has often expressed admiration for President Reagan, B-movie actor in the “role of a lifetime,” whose stirring proclamations of nationalistic revivalism became the drum-and-fife soundtrack for his frighteningly reckless escalation of the arms race, murderous (secret) funding of Central American death-squads, ruinous budget-deficits, and disastrous de-regulation.  However modest his acting ability, Reagan used his oratorical skills to persuade Americans to believe him, trust him—and re-elect him.3 Yet unlike Reagan, who offered a simplistic vision of moral certitude, Obama is a more nebulous “leader”—one who, having attained the coveted office, does not necessarily want to take us anywhere.

Of course, even in ancient Greece people were wary of the hypocritical dissembling of politicians and others who presented themselves as wise leaders.  Socrates, as portrayed by Plato in Gorgias, rejects rhetoric as a skill of misleading persuasion or clever, but specious, reasoning (later termed, unfairly to the Sophists, “sophistry”); and Aristotle condemned “base rhetoric” as a tool of deception, manipulation, and control.

Curiously, having attained the coveted office of President, Obama’s manner of speaking began to seem increasingly pedestrian, detached, unengaging and unengaged.  A kind of sing-song delivery, weighing this but considering that, might be considered simply the pedantic, judicious style of a former law professor.  Yet it allowed him a smooth, if tedious, voyage between a reactionary Scylla and a centrist Charybis–to the safe-port of comforting Platitude.

In his recent book, psychoanalyst Justin Frank describes a childhood deficient in stable attachments and consistent guidance: an absentee Kenyan father who abandoned him, an Indonesian stepfather (temporary), and a Kansas-born mother who often parked him with his grandparents while she pursued anthropological fieldwork and employment elsewhere.  Such shifting and transient parental care could hardly have promoted a secure sense of stable, supportive attachments and the confidence of being unconditionally loved.  One might add that such an unusually multicultural upbringing, with its shifting social norms and caretakers, would naturally encourage a cultural if not moral relativism—a tendency which could only have been enhanced by the professional ethos of his anthropologist-mother.

I offer a more parsimonious, if less nuanced, viewpoint than Dr Frank and others.  Undervalued as a child — with a compromised social identity, damaged self-esteem, and the sense that love and acceptance could only be won through “specialness” — Obama would eventually pursue “the highest office in the land.”  He would, as it turned out, over-achieve his psychological imperative—proving indubitably to himself as well as others that he was indeed a highly “superior” person of ultimate status in society.  “Compensatory narcissism”: attaining the office was an end in itself, the ultimate status symbol and ego-prop for an otherwise “hungry” self-identity.  He did not aspire and attain the office in order to implement policies for the betterment of the citizenry or for world peace.  Rather, as we have seen, he will adopt whatever policies likely to be of advantage in securing a four-year extension of his exalted rank.  (Obvious example: this former law professor ordered the assassination of bin Laden on May 1, 2011—exactly eight years to the day after Bush kicked off his re-election campaign under a triumphal “Mission Accomplished” banner.)

What did Obama wish to accomplish as president?  What are his doctrines of public policy in terms of the civic values embodied in the Constitution and the landmark legislations of the past?  Does he believe in the “economic bill of rights” once outlined by FDR?  Does he believe in a National Health Insurance program as a citizens’ entitlement (first proposed by Truman in 1945)?  Does he believe in traditional standards of fairness and justice (as in the plight of foreclosed homeowners vs. bailed-out banks)?  Does he believe in international laws regarding legitimate war crimes tribunals (which, having indicted such figures as Milosevic and Charles Taylor, could also have indicted both bin Laden and Bush et al.)?  As a former constitutional law professor who has ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens and signed the NDAA bill, does he even believe in the Constitution (and Bill of Rights) which he swore to defend?  Ultimately, does he believe in anything—except persuading the public to support the exalted self-aggrandisement of President Barack Obama?  We have become so accustomed to politicians, once elected, “selling out” and “betraying their principles”—that we may fail to recognize the absence of any principles in the first place.

  1. In the ironic sense of David Halberstam’s phrase “the best and the brightest”: largely Harvard-educated meritocrats “entitled” to elite-positions of wealth and power, such as Obama and the bankster CEOs who also summer on Martha’s Vineyard. []
  2. Justin Frank, Obama on the Couch, p. 3. []
  3. With regard to the “impression-management” of political actors, Plutarch recounts how in the 6th century B.C. the Athenian lawmaker Solon, hearing that “Thespis, at this time, beginning to act tragedies, and the thing, because it was new, taking very much with the multitude,” decided to see Thespis engage in his play-acting.  “After the play was done, he addressed him, and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: ‘Ay,’ said he, ‘if we honor and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business.’”- Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.  Trans. John Dryden (1683). []

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.