As a psychologist, I admire Barack Obama's self-confidence and sure footing in his public appearances. People often speak of his feeling comfortable within his skin. So I am puzzled by his PR mistakes, like comparing his bowling to Special Olympics participants on Jay Leno. This was followed by his breezy 60 Minutes appearance which was punctuated with what he termed "gallows" laughter at strange and unpredictable points.
Obama's manner is often contrasted (including by me) with his predecessor's, who seemed to be hiding within his own skin - hunkering down, avoiding challenging groups, and resorting to Borscht-belt humor when facing tough audiences. Bush's image was of a man with a fragile psyche who would be pushed over the edge if he ever ventured outside of his comfort zone.
Obama, on the other hand, is a marvel of relaxation, especially considering the avalanche of earth-shattering crises he faces, domestically and internationally. How does he do it? His calm demeanor not only helped to get him elected; it also is necessary for him to govern. Among the thousands of reasons I could never be president, the most psychologically scary one is imagining how I'd be feeling if I had his job.
Being relaxed is not the same as letting it all hang out. The most obvious contrast is between Obama and his VP, Joe Biden. Biden spends much of his time living down comments arising from saying whatever is on his mind, with no apparent self-censorship.
Fear of letting slip a Biden-like comment must keep many a politician awake at night. This kind of anxiety often tied George W. Bush up in knots, making him hesitant and tongue-tied. Obama thus seems miraculously to combine the caution and calculation of a successful politician with the naturalness of a TV talk show host or political pundit.
But is this an accurate depiction of the president? His recent missteps raise a slight doubt about Obama's self-assured demeanor. Does he not really have the highly developed self-presence we thought? Or, worse, is he melting under the pressure?
Several unlikely Republicans, like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, gave Obama a pass on his Special Olympics miscue. Obviously, they were anticipating the next time they misspoke, something - as political commentators - they frequently do.
Or maybe they were really feeling sorry for the president? Feelings of pity from these worthies - that's really frightening!
But people's psychological defenses blow up when situations get out of hand, when events overwhelm their emotional ability to cope. The only thing worse than Bush hunched over the lectern giving reporters nicknames with a pathetic smile - one saying, "don't attack me!" - would be to see him cowering in a corner lunging at his psychological demons and imagined - and real - enemies.
Obama isn't so emotionally vulnerable. Watching him in front of an audience doesn't make us wince. But it does make me wonder whether his psychological capacities are being taxed to the maximum. After all, we've watched this man's hair turning white over a matter of months. And, likewise counteracting his image of unflappability are those pictures - hopefully long past - of the president puffing nervously on a cigarette.
Conventional wisdom is that it has become ridiculously hard for any potential public official to pass the increasingly stringent vetting process. My concern is that no one can endure the growing psychological tension of managing this vast, unmanageable country, even someone as calm and self-confident as Barack Obama usually appears to be. And so, replacing my imagining who would be the first President to enter the Betty Ford Center, I now worry that Barack Obama may be the first president to have a nervous breakdown.
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