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Politicians And Psychological Testing

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Q: I heard someone say that Barack Obama needed the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright as a surrogate father figure because his own father abandoned him. And I heard someone else say that Eliot Spitzer had a compulsive need to be more successful in life than his enormously wealthy and self-made father -and that was what compelled him to take unacceptable risks . And of course whole books have been written about the Bushes, pere et fils, and how the younger went to war to show his father how it could be done.

These are all examples of politician's daddies and the influence they have on their sons. So, maybe instead of listening to what politicians have to say on the issue, we should call them in for some serious psychological testing. After all, we ask to see their medical records and often the press interviews their physicians, why not do something similar when it comes to mental health?

A: Actually, I think we are already unconsciously, but constantly, psychologically assessing the candidates. Of course, we listen to what they have to say on the issues and for some people these are paramount. Politicians well know the power of single issue voters - abortion, for instance - who will vote up or down on that issue alone -and nothing else really matters.

And then there's the rest of us who make our decisions for a host of reasons, some of them pragmatic - how does he or she stand on Social Security and NAFTA and gun control, etc--but also for reasons that might be considered psychological. What do we make of Hillary Clinton's tight smile or Barack Obama's soaring self-confidence. But when you are putting a candidate on the couch, you have skipped a process that all shrinks go through themselves - analysis. Before we can even start to know others, we have to know ourselves.

In the case of political candidates, especially presidential ones, we have to accept that our own unknown or unacknowledged psychological attraction to a candidate is based not only on his or her attributes, but our own psychological make-up. It is a two-way street, a relationship that works both ways. The candidate and the electorate are like a marriage. Each party's psychological needs play a role. We fill each other's needs and aspirations. And we get mad at candidates when they touch upon our vulnerabilities and don't respond in ways that make us feel comfortable.

So let's go back to the three presidential candidates still in the race. Can you empathize with Obama's apparent need for a strong father figure? Do you feel it is a sign of strength for him to not separate from or condemn this strong male figure in his life. And, if so, is that because you have a similar need? But if the answer is just the opposite, if you feel that Obama's reliance on Jeremiah Wright is silly or weak or just plain inexplicable, is that because you have never had such a need in your own life because mommy or daddy was always there. Is it because you had someone to watch as he shaved, who taught you the deep mysteries of the Windsor knot or that a gold tie clip goes with a brown suit and a silver one with black?

What comes up for you as each politician is psychologically exposed? Does it trigger fears lurking within you? Is there is a middle-aged woman alive who does not look into the mirror, look back at her husband and wonder? Did Hillary Clinton's decision to forgive Bill for his infidelity, for his shocking escapades with a (very) young woman, for the mortification he put his daughter through... does all of that threaten some women more than it ever did Hillary? Are they angry with her for not kicking him out of the White House -setting a very bad example indeed for that guy still asleep in your bed and dreaming of God-knows-who while they check the mirror for signs of overnight aging?

Both Clinton and Obama are human Rorschachs. Their web pages bristle with position papers, but the candidates themselves are unique in American history -a woman and a black man. What deep psychological reactions do they trigger? What's your feelings about women, about middle-aged woman? What's your feeling about African Americans, about African American males?

All of that, of course, is skin (or gender) deep, but it can trigger profound feelings. And then we can go on. Can you understand supporting a strong parental figure because you have always been searching for one? Have you always wanted to be a part of the "popular" group? Are you more likely to vote for the candidate who's got a lead in the polls so that, as in high school, you can be part of the popular crowd? Are you burdened by the need to prove yourself?

None of us are free from troubling psychological issues. That's a given. More problematical is whether these issues are blinding you to the true qualities, or deficits, of a political candidate. So, sure, male presidential candidates have issues about their father and female candidates about their mother -- and don't get me started about McCain and his father, the admiral of the entire Pacific fleet--and sometimes the mother is more important and sometimes the father. But we know all this. It was the stuff of Greek mythology before the couch was delivered to 19 Berggasse. What we don't know -- or don't listen to -- is ourselves, the reasons we sometimes reject or accept a political candidate.

Every election, someone wins and someone loses and the political consultants come forth to explain it all. They say it's about issues and voting blocks and such, but it is often about psychology--not just that of the candidates, but of ourselves as well.

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