Learning from Obama (Psychology and Politics)

Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post put it well. First she likened Obama to Mr Cool himself, Frank Sinatra.

He’s a cat. He’s doesn’t sweat… anything. He is the envy of cucumbers. When everything is collapsing around him — the economy, the Dow, the job market — Obama is perched on the stool like Frank Sinatra between sets.

But then she made the point as to why it seems the majority of Americans are leaning towards Obama for president:

He was at his best projecting the grown-up at the kitchen-table as he answered the question: “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got — got us into this global economic crisis?”
Said Obama: “I understand your frustration and your cynicism, because while you’ve been carrying out your responsibilities — most of the people here, you’ve got a family budget. If less money is coming in, you end up making cuts. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much. Maybe you put off buying a new car. That’s not what happens in Washington.”

It’s certainly not Obama at his most eloquent but it’s connecting where it counts – on economic issues. It’s a small point with huge implications. Leaders need to understand people’s daily frustrations and keep their cool as they plot a way out of the mess.

But I don’t want to beat the drum for Obama today. I’m interested to bring a psychological understanding of this election campaign. I’ve been reading Adam Phillips’s book on Winnicott and one of the things he says is that mothers need to be able to survive the baby’s rage. The way that the baby tests whether the mother is really trustworthy or not is basically to destroy her (in unconscious fantasy). The baby will throw his/her toys out of the cot, have a screaming tantrum and the mother-figure (which incidentally is often the father too) needs to be able to survive that without shaming the baby into conformity. I guess this stuff is second-nature to most parents in the US and the UK these days but it’s worth repeating.

If, in Winnicott’s terms, the self is first made real through recognition, the object is first made real through aggressive destruction; and this, of course, makes experience of the object feel real to the self. … If the object will not allow itself to be destroyed, and does not retaliate: if it survives the full blast of the subject’s destructiveness, then, and only then, can the subject conceive of the object as beyond his power and therefore fully real.

I think we’ve seen that in this election numerous times. Obama vs Clinton was possibly a decisive turning-point. As much as Clinton tried to destroy Obama, he took the punches and kept going. At the end of an at-times bitter campaign, Hilary had the grace to rally behind her opponent and support his bid. If Obama hadn’t been through the mill, so to speak, would Americans have been able to put their trust in him? Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of the US election system – that it puts the candidates through the wash not just once but many times. (There are obvious disadvantages as well in terms of populism and style over substance but that’s not the point here.)

Politicians can learn something from this – that it is when the electorate really seems to hate you (cf. Tony Blair and the British public) that they are in fact testing you. How will you stand up to the pressure? Will you become all defensive and go on the attack or will you take the “slings and arrows of outrageous fate” and stay on course?

There are numerous implications for South African politics. A large section of the public appears to be really fed up with the ANC at the moment and the party could split into two. How do political leaders in this country deal with criticism and dissent? Do they force people into compliance with the dominant view? Play “you’re either with us or against us” games? Or do we have a robust debate about the problems facing our country and accept the criticism and move forward?


9 Responses to Learning from Obama (Psychology and Politics)

  1. anglhugnu2 says:

    I have to be honest! I am not impressed with either Barrack Obama or John McCain. While one carries the appearance of calm and the other wily, these two a still clueless after nearly two years of campaigning for the presidency. Barrack played it safe by staying on message and massaging the audience. McCain played it safe by having no message at all while trying to play comedian.

    I am one of those independent voters both candidates are trying to convince. And, truth be known, tonight’s debate between John and Barrack was no help for them to get my vote. Tonight was McCain’s chance to mix things up and raise a few eyebrows.

    This presidential campaign has been too long. Something has got to be done when we are once more ready to make a similar decision some four years from now. These candidates feel like two relatives you have learned far too much about when they decide to visit your home ans they have stayed far too long.

    To think another set of wanna-bee presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, could be today organizing their exploratory committees for 2012 is quite frightening.

    It would be one thing if John and Barrack’s rhetoric carried significant substance. It did not. While I am sure they believe what they are saying means something, I do believe I am not alone in stating their efforts to “stay on message” makes me feel like I am watching a bad paid for TV program about a new sandwich maker late at night and I have lost the remote.

    I have to admit Barrack’s suits are looking far more expensive these days and he looks good while wearing them. The sale of such threads will surely rise. It would have been nice to feel confident Barrack has some grasp of the world and how its politics works. I Just don’t feel he has a great sense of history…outside for how he THINKS John voted on this or that. When asked who he would replace Paulson with at Treasury, I was floored he had no person other than McCain’s choice of Obama supporter Warren Buffet. Hell, tell the man Mitt Romney….you know John McCain’s nemesis!

    I am not quite sure it means anything, but, it does appear Michelle Obama’s weight is being affected by this campaign season. I noticed the remarkable difference to her appearance as she walked onto the stage standing next to McCain’s second wife Cindy. If it is not that she has gained weight it could be she should avoid wearing red dresses and standing to close to the pencil thin Cindy McCain, who strangely enough wore blue.

    As for Mr McCain, John is looking older, crankier, and staid as the last 30 days wheels on by. He makes a substantive offer to have the government buy all the bad mortgages and have them renegotiated, BUT, he makes no effort to layout the details so we might taste the success of his plan. Perhaps it was not a part of his plan, but, a whim. Or, even better, one of the new notes he began scrawling on the pad he was not supposed to have with him at this debate.

    Also, his off the cuff shot at Tom Brokaw about not being one of his selections for the new Secretary of Treasury was useless and mindless. Such comments might play well in a cavernous auditorium full of supporters who laugh because they are delerious about your being the next great Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan.

    The first thing they teach you about public speaking is to make sure you know your audience. The audience in Nashville were carefully chosen independent voters who were looking for substance from their potential choice for the presidency. On several occasions throughout the night John made one sharp comment after another trying to play to the crowd in his clever old way. His condescending “that one” comment made while pointing to Obama seemed more to accentuate his cranky ancient demeanor than to pull from the crowd a feeling a choice for John is a good one.

    Obama and McCain, to me, seemed disconnected from the facts as they should be stated to support their promises that will be put on hold given the current economic conditions. I am aware that this is what politicians do in order to get elected in normal times. These times, however, are not normal times. Perhaps the enormous size of the economic problems of this country and the rest of the world makes small the very nature of each candidates promise and saying “they are as clueless” as we are about which one we will want to handle them would simply be political Kool-Aid.

    For the first time in the last 19 months, knowing what I do know about the human condition, I am somewhat fearful for those who do not have enough to eat tonight, a place upon which to sleep, and enough money for home heating oil to warm them in this coming harsh winter. I am somewhat hesitant about there being a clear direction for this country emerging from the new administration. Perhaps it is time WE TOOK THE REIGNS and explain to them how we want it to be led. How that is accomplished….I have not the foggiest.

    As odd as this may sound, the days following 9-11 seemed to have far more a feeling of direction than that of these days with these two candidates for the presidency of this good and great country.

    Again, as odd as this may sound, with all of the doubt I express above I still possess a great deal of hope we will see our way through the next four years of tough economic high unemployment times despite which president is in office.

    I still have to remind myself these two are vying to be the servant of a country with 300+ million leaders.

  2. Pete says:

    Um thanks, AngllhugnU2. I’m guessing that’s short for “Angel hugging you too”. That was more a post than a comment. And I’m clearly not going to get into the issue of whether Mrs Obama or Mrs McCain looked better on the night. Hopefully that’s not an issue for the electorate. Good luck in making up your mind on Nov 4th.

  3. Superb post, Pete. I like the connection you establish between politics and psychology. If the ANC can mature into a robust party that can enter debate without becoming defensive and hiding behind stereotypes then it will be the making of South Africa.

  4. verbivore says:

    This is really interesting, I assume there is a lot psychology can tell us about the political process. I also like your comment about the positives/negatives of how America puts its candidates through the wash. As you point out, there is something very reassuring about watching an individual maintain their composure in that storm. On the flip side, where do we draw the line between confidence and composure and dangerous disconnect? I think your comment about how a leader or a govt deals with dissent is really important and perhaps clues to that behavior can be seen early on as the individual or party deals with attacks on their policies through an election process.

  5. Litlove says:

    Very interesting and spot on, too. I read years ago that if a customer has a problem with a business, and that business rallies and deals with it, the customer will be more inclined to return to the same business than go elsewhere. Nothing offers security like the experience of going through a difficult patch and coming out the other side, satisfied. And I think in political terms, the number one satisfaction for the people lies in being heard and recognised. Blair lost so much support over here when he went ahead with the war in Iraq after so much public outrage and protest. If he had recognised the voice of the people, spoken to and of their concerns, mitigated his involvement in any way, he would have been a hero rather than a villain.

  6. Pete says:

    Charlotte – Thanks. And there are many excellent people in (and outside of) the ANC so we live in hope.

    Verbivore – Yes, for me that’s always the litmus test for a politician – how they deal with criticism. Wouldn’t it be great to have a really emotionally astute set of politicians?

    Litlove – I thought you’d approve of the Winnicottian analysis. And very true re other spheres of life too – dealing with customers, students and also clients / patients in therapy. I know from my own experience that being able to get angry in therapy and for that to be understood made a big impression on me.

  7. Courtney says:

    Very interesting analysis here – I never thougth of the rigorous campaigning season as possibly advantageous before! But you are absolutely right. Now we all must hold our breath and see what happens on November 4…

  8. Emily Barton says:

    Very interesting. I’m less fascinated by the political aspects and more fascinated by the whole notion of the consequences of parents’ responses to baby rage. I guess that is reflected in another way by those bullying bosses who admire the employees who, rather than cowering in response to their rage, stand up to them or use humor to temper them. Yet again, proof for me that parents have SUCH a huge responsibility.

  9. verbivore says:

    Watched a short video on the relationship between moral pyschology and political dynamics yesterday – and I though you might be interested:
    This comes from the TED organisation, which you may have heard of, if not, they organize a huge conference every year to look at innovations in a broad variety of fields. The speaker’s morality survey project (as related to politics) looks really intriguing as well.

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