THE BLOG

Obama on the Couch: Storm Warnings

09/02/2011 01:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

What a father does in times of crisis is often determined by how that man was mothered. And comparing Bush and Obama's responses to the late-summer hurricanes Katrina and Irene reveals much about each man: their responses couldn't be more different.

Obama anticipated the potential devastation Irene could cause while Bush did not anticipate Katrina's force -- much the same way he didn't prepare for 9/11 -- despite learning about the potential threat well in advance of its horrific arrival.

Bush has an unconscious need to deny adversity and discount danger signs; he prides himself on being able to adapt and respond once a dangerous situation is in progress. This stems from a childhood long on maternal punishment, for which he compensated by bullying his siblings and playing the big shot. He developed a defensive grandiosity that protected him from facing the reality of his mother's wrath, allowing him to minimize or even deny genuine disasters about to hit him in the face. His grandiose denial led to a failure of imagination, an inability to visualize and then feel the danger that people as different as meteorologists and Condi Rice saw and warned about.

Obama, on the other hand, was raised by a nurturing mother, who swaddled him with stories and myths. This sparked his imagination and led to his great curiosity about the world around him. It formed the core source of his enormous perspicacity. Critics on the left say that he "wimps" out -- whether when negotiating on the debt ceiling or on when to speak to a joint session of Congress. From my analytic perspective, he is not being a wimp but the victim of his own deep need to see a truly united United States, no matter what the cost.

Both men's inner needs dominated their psychological solutions to political problems: Bush needed to deny danger and avoid anxiety at all cost; Obama needs to have right and left cooperate at all cost even if it renders his original intent barely recognizable. Red and Blue alike agreed that bin Laden was evil and should be destroyed -- removing ambivalence from Obama's palate. The same with the impending hurricane -- it wasn't Boehner or McConnell but an act of nature that had to be dealt with seriously and forcefully. His perspicacity was applied to dealing with externally agreed upon danger and not with his compulsive reluctance to alienate Republican opposition.

Bush's lackluster response to Katrina -- continuing to cavort in Arizona with Senator McCain rather than address the catastrophe -- demonstrated the opposite of compassion. Where Obama cut short his vacation to get back to business, Bush continued his vacation, even praising his ill-prepared disaster expert. Bush's trip to New Orleans reminded me of his other denials of hardship suffered by others -- from his college glee at hazing freshmen by burning their buttocks with lit cigarettes to his presidential days encouraging waterboarding of terror suspects. He externalizes his own fears and pushes them into others, a lifelong, if faulty, mechanism for coping with his enormous anxiety.

When Obama urged full hurricane preparation, encouraging people on the east coast to be careful, he was inviting the nation to join him in his own coping mechanism, by thinking ahead about what they were about to contend with. His active fantasy life allows him to imagine bad situations and then respond to them. He plans to visit various flood-ravaged areas this weekend, extolling what he saw as a united effort to cope with the storm. His point of emphasis is cooperation and denial of differences; Bush's was self-preservation and denial of palpable destruction.