07/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Politics on the Couch: Opposites Detract or Listening to the Unsaid

What follows is the eighth post for the interactive book, Politics on the Couch. Readers' comments are welcome and an integral part of this experiment.

POC: Opposites Detract - Listening to the Unsaid

One aim of this project is to help us all -- myself included -- pay attention to our own unconscious, and think about how it affects our perceptions of political life in 2008. A second aim of this project is to interact with members of community who are willing to share how their thoughts and feelings affect their perceptions. Nowhere have these two factors -- thinking about our perceptions and sharing our thoughts -- seemed more compelling than when we try to make sense of what Barack Obama means by the word, "Change."

For years, I have been struck by how political candidates -- especially presidential candidates -- are in most ways like the rest of us, only super-sized. Their psychological coping mechanisms -- their "defenses" -- are also magnified when bathed in TV lights. One simple way to learn about whom the candidates really are is to pay attention to the slogans by which they define themselves.

Slogans such as "I'm a uniter not a divider" overtly express who the candidate is as well as who he isn't. But when we listen at a deeper level we know that by saying who he is not, the candidate may reveal who he actually is. The quality he denies to us about himself is something he had to think of - consciously or unconsciously -- in order to negate it. But hindsight is often 20/20, particularly in the case of G.W. Bush.

It's easy to look at McCain's "Straight Talk Express" and see that it is neither. He changes his positions dramatically -- as in the case of off-shore drilling. He also is not honest with himself, expressing disgust at having been attacked by the Bush/Rove cabal in 2000 and then embracing his attackers. And he is the opposite of the "express" part, admitting to his ignorance of both modern economics and computing.

But Obama has been more of a challenge, even to his acolytes. Democrats who supported other candidates, as well as most Republicans, openly questioned his authenticity or said they didn't know who he really is. Now, in light of his recent support of the death penalty, of government involvement with faith-based initiatives, and of the FISA bill, Obama supporters themselves have to look at who he is and what he might be negating about himself. Perhaps he is unconsciously offering "A Change you CAN'T believe in" or "MORE OF THE SAME you can believe in." My lovely wife, the editor, wishes he would offer, "Change in which you can believe," but that's another issue -- and another unconscious.

What excited so many Obama supporters and led to massive voter registration and turnout was his call for change in Washington. This idea invites projection like few others -- and something Kleinian analysts call projective identification. It means that we put our own hopes and fears into Obama -- not simply onto him -- and assume that he is thinking what we are thinking. We are not consciously aware of doing this, but unconsciously we assume we know what he means by "change" because of having successfully projected our dreams into what we think of as his mind, exemplified by his phraseology. We then identify with him, but our identification is based on projection more than on what he actually means. It's a lot like falling in love -- we meet someone who attracts us and unconsciously imbue that person with all of the attributes we desire in a partner, even before we really know much about her or him.

Projection starts early in life, earlier than disappointment and hurt. But both are involved here -- all infants experience moments when feeding is interrupted because mother has to do something suddenly or because some sibling makes demands or something else. The baby can be upset and angry, and then the mother tries to repair damage done. Projective identification often is evident when mothers change diapers: babies love to have their diapers changed, but experience it as though it's the mother who loves doing the changing.

The process of break and repair can be made worse if the mother is very inviting and exciting but not aware of how upset the baby feels when it's disappointed. I think that Obama should watch for the people he disappoints, as early on he vaulted over not only the disappointment we felt with Washington, but disappointments from our own lives as well. By using the word change he gave us hope -- and with a return of current hope come ancient hopes as well, which set us up even more for disappointment.

Hence disillusionment evolves into dismay at his FISA vote on July 9, 2008. He supported the Bush administration when 23 Senate colleagues (including vanquished primary foes Clinton, Biden, and Dodd) voted nay. So we are forced to ask ourselves what he actually means by "change" as compared to what we think he means. I thought change meant confronting the special interest groups, like pharmas and telecoms whose demands dominate all legislation. I thought change meant listening to others and not being doctrinaire -- that unlike either McCain or Clinton, he would try diplomacy with "enemies" like Iran. I thought change meant genuine thinking -- a foreign policy no longer dominated by knee-jerk neocons.

But others, from Gail Collins of the NYT to my father-in-law, thought Obama's idea of change meant including and even embracing diverse ideas and solutions. He opposed the "with us or against us" approach of Bush Republicans, something partly adopted by Clinton too. Republicans recently disillusioned with their party, thought change meant getting away from politics as usual; Obama's vote on FISA is already seen as flip-flop behavior not different from Kerry's in 2004. On the other side, liberal columnist Bob Herbert titled his July 9 NYT op-ed about Obama "Lurching with Abandon."

So I repaired to the Oxford English Dictionary -- to look up the word "change," which Obama uses as a noun, not a verb. Basically it means substituting one thing for another, a succession of one thing for another. Substitution of one for the other applies to situations as well, as in the phrase "for a change". But where does that leave us in relation to Obama? And where does that leave him?

To me, he wins because people can project all things into the word "change" and feel good about him and about themselves. To me, he loses because many people will end up feeling disappointed in him as he clarifies who he is, or as the positions he takes do that for him. To some, he has veered off his liberal course -- as Arianna Hufington and others think. To others, he has stayed on course, as Gail Collins and others believe. It all depends on what "change" is. I guess that's better than what "is" is.

Does defining a term like change help us think about our own contribution to what we think about Obama? What kinds of qualities might we project into our candidates? What other thoughts do you have about looking for the unsaid or for the opposite of what a candidate actually did say?