Psychoanalyst Interprets Obama on Syria
What makes Barack tick? To find out, The Progressive interviewed Harvard-educated, Washington-based psychoanalyst Dr. Justin Frank, author of the 2011 book “Obama on the Couch, Inside the Mind of the President.” Frank was trained at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. At London’s Tavistock Clinic he had a fellowship in adolescent psychiatry (which presumably came in handy when Frank wrote 2005’s “Bush on the Couch”). Frank is currently Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center. In this conversation, Frank discusses how the president’s “disconnected self” affects White House policies.
Q: What is your overview of Obama’s psychology?
Dr. Justin Frank: He is dedicated to uniting his broken family of origin. He had a series of abandonments and losses -- his father left the family when he was a baby. He was uprooted when he was four or five and went to Indonesia. He was uprooted from Indonesia when he was ten. His mother had remarried and he had a close relationship with his stepfather, then he got uprooted and separated from his stepfather who he never saw again -- except once, when he was dying. He’s had a series of being an outcast and uprooted and he wants to belong and be in a family.
Q: Is this what’s behind his tendency to want to placate and please?
Frank: Yes. It’s to try and placate and please… He also is biracial and is trying to bring together all kinds of different aspects of his personality. So yes, just not placate and please -- it’s an attempt to bring diverse people and ideas together under his own amazing ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance. For instance, even in his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention he talked about having one America, not red and blue states, but United States. This has always been his goal, but he’s never been able to achieve it because domestically he’s always been viciously attacked by the Republicans, who can’t stand having him as their president, whether because he’s Black or god knows why… Whatever it is… so there’s no way for him to really achieve this goal.
The irony is this international situation with Syria is the first time he has ever achieved his goal of bringing opposites together. Only instead of the opposites being Democrats and Republicans who can never get together in the House -- the Republicans just will not pass his bills -- but he’s actually bringing different parts of the world together, like Russia and the U.S. It’s quite dramatic in the sense diplomatically he has achieved the very thing that he always psychologically dreamed of. What he has dreamed of is finding what apparent opposites have in common. He talked about the love between his mother and father as an improbable love…
He has learned to accommodate and please in order to get along and be part of a group. And sometimes in that process he sacrifices the very people who helped him the most and got him there. He’s always done that -- since the fourth grade. He gives many examples of that in his autobiography. He just talks about it -- he doesn’t essentially say he threw his one Black friend in the fourth grade under the bus, but he essentially did in order to stay close to another group of kids. So he’s always done this…
Q: Who’s he trying to placate and please?
Frank: It’s not placating -- it’s trying to belong. It’s not a specific person as much as he’s trying to find a way to fit in.
Q: Why did he go to Congress to seek authorization to attack Syria? Maureen Dowd almost called him a “wimp” in her Post column for doing so.
Frank: Because she hates complexity. She hates nuance -- she really hates it… People confuse talking and thinking out loud. Maureen Dowd is a great example of that… They define somebody who thinks as a “wimp.” It goes back to this attraction to non-thought. She’s sarcastic and funny about it but it really is a deep seated anxiety about people who see complexity… We’re talking about how different he seems from himself…
[Obama went to Congress] because he realized suddenly that he’s not like George Bush. And he realized he wants to find some way to bring people together… Some of his Syria talk and some of his drone behavior was a way -- this is pretty cynical on my part, psychologically -- of ingratiating himself to the Republicans. He has this fantasy that if he just does the right thing the Republicans will work with him. So maybe if he does the “right” thing in terms of foreign policy, being very militant and tough, he’ll get Republicans to respect him and work with him. I think that’s part of why he goes to Congress.
He’s willing to turn his back on lots of Democratic allies in order to get Republicans, to be part of the Republican group. This is what he did when he was the head of Harvard Law Review -- when he was elected by all kinds of liberal people who were very excited by it. He ended up by becoming friends with the most conservative law students in his year when he was president of the Law Review. And that’s who he is.
Q: Does Obama think he must not only play the role of U.S. president, but as head of the U.S. empire, too?
Frank: Yes, he has more than one feeling about that. He does feel that we have the right to be the policeman of the world, even though he doesn’t want to be the policeman of the world. We have to draw the line somewhere, and for some reason, pointing guns at children is not as bad as gassing them. He has in his mind a hierarchy of murdering and to me murdering children is murdering children. But I’m in the minority apparently, because chemical weapons are far worse than just shooting children…
Now, there’s also a complete avoidance or evasion or non-thought -- just because Obama thinks doesn’t mean he only thinks. He also doesn’t think [laughs]. The non-thought part of him is completely evading the fact that we as a country have used our versions of chemical weapons, with depleted uranium in Fallujah, with all kinds of things like Agent Orange. We have a long history of massive, indiscriminate destruction.
Q: Obama may wring his hands and weep about the slaughtered children at Newtown, Connecticut, but his drone policies have reportedly killed ten times more children than Adam Lanza killed.
Frank: I agree with you. And that is a disconnection that has always been disturbing to me as a psychoanalyst and human being. What he has done -- that’s why he’s so complicated. On the one hand he’s very compassionate and human, and on the other hand to do drone strikes you dehumanize the enemy, you really don’t think about the indiscriminate nature of the drone strikes. It’s a real displacement of his aggression. I think he’s much more angry at John Boehner than he is at Al Qaeda, but I don’t think he knows what to do about him.
Q: You use the terms “cognitive dissonance” and “disconnection.” He was a constitutional law professor and ran promising to be the most transparent president in history. Yet, under his reign, we’ve had this mushrooming of spying and the increase of persecution of leakers and whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. He actually talks about himself as being “unworthy” of winning the Nobel Peace Prize and, while he’s threatening to bomb another country that America doesn’t want to be the policeman of the world. He seems to have awareness of these things, but then just acts in a totally opposite manner.
Frank: You have a very astute observation here that could really be the subject of a real long, long, long discussion because there’s a form of a capacity to dismiss his own psychic reality and distance himself from who he is. He knows very much who he is. But there’s this other part of him that can really disconnect. And he learned to do that when he was a child. And he talks about it, about how he can disconnect from his mother, how he learned to disconnect because he was abandoned, how he learned to not express or show feelings because it was very important not to.
The problem with learning those things is that you also start not feeling them inside yourself. So not only is he disconnected in his relations to others, he actually is disconnected from what he’s doing. Every once in a while he can connect and think about it, like he talks about the drone killings and he expresses for a moment some remorse. Then he goes back and does it. It’s like understanding without affect, without feeling.
Q: He’ll even say, when Medea Benjamin repeatedly interrupts him during a speech, this woman has something important to listen to and to say.
Frank: Yes. And he’s right. And he does listen -- and then he does it [drone strikes]. That is what is the hardest thing as a psychoanalyst to deal with. I spent years working with patients who have this problem, where they hear -- and they don’t hear. My first main professor at Boston used to say, “Sorrow is the vitamin of growth.” This is a man who walled himself off from loss at an early age… He also learned to manage but being able to see the good in everyone and everything so he could look at what people have in common. So he has several different mechanisms of self protection, which has really made him an unusual leader…
There’s something self-deceiving about him, more than he’s deceiving us. So when he says, “This is going to be a transparent presidency,” I actually think that that’s what he thinks.… In terms of public figures, often you should take into account the opposite of what they say is what they mean unconsciously. For instance, when Obama says, “change you can believe in,” my first thought was “change you can’t believe in.” Or when he first said “transparency” I thought “opacity,” because you don’t have to say something that strong unless you are also aware of the opposite inside of you. He has more than one feeling about the same thing.
He hates whistleblowers. He hates them because they point out inconsistencies in him. It’s okay for him to point them out -- if he’s controlling it. But if somebody else points them out it drives him crazy -- he can’t stand it.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and the author of “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States.” The new book he has co-authored about Hawaii’s movies and TV shows will be published by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing in September. Rampell has interviewed many artists for The Progressive, including Oliver Stone, Ken Burns, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Ed Asner, W. S. Merwin, Cenk Uygur, and Michael Apted.
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