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Justin Frank Headshot

Caught Between Two Extremes: Obama on the Couch

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In writing Obama on the Couch last fall, I undertook a mission of some urgency: understanding our president. Gail Sheehy wrote on the dust jacket that Obama must know himself better, to face "the brutal, intractable conflicts that would ensue if both sides gave free rein to their hostility."

To many on the left, President Obama is a disappointment. To many on the right, President Obama is a socialist threat to American freedoms. As a psychoanalyst, I see that both of these reactions are based on projections -- the unconscious fantasies of each group projected onto the president. Obama lives between these two extremes, walking a presidential tightrope entirely focused on bringing people together. I called this posturing "obsessive bipartisan disorder."

My goal is to untangle the public's distortions and explore Obama's strengths and weaknesses by studying his life patterns and experiences from earliest childhood. A new epilogue in the paperback edition, released last week, tracks Obama's evolution from community organizer to candidate to first-term president. Now, as he prepares to hit the campaign trail for a final time, he seems to be shedding his compulsive bipartisanship. Here's an excerpt; I look forward to your comments.

It's as if the scales have dropped from his eyes and he sees clearly, no longer stuck in that bipartisan cloud. He was most direct at a mid-December press conference when he quickly responded to being told that some Republican candidates had called him an appeaser, saying that he's guilty of appeasement in foreign policy. Obama said, "Ask bin Laden and the 22 of 30 al-Qaeda operatives taken off the field if I'm an appeaser.

Obama has begun to see that change and progress are not possible without confrontation. But he is held back by an unconscious fear of the depths of the animosity -- both his and the Republicans' -- that is only barely being held in check and of the brutal, intractable conflicts that would ensue if both sides gave free rein to their hostility.

The attacks on Obama launched by Republican candidates for the nomination reveal other elements of how the opposition thinks. One of the most obvious was Mitt Romney's notorious television ad that showed Obama talking about the economy during the 2008 campaign, without clarifying that he was actually quoting John McCain. This separation between words and authorship makes it easier to understand the facility with which Romney and others can radically change their positions, sometime on a daily basis. Behind this is a degree of splitting so pronounced and profound as to render impossible the tolerance of cognitive dissonance, let alone nuance -- an unconscious rejection of the complex, nuanced thinking that is accurately associated with Obama.