McCain, Obama and the Psychology of Decisions

Monday, 20 October 2008 15:56 By PhD, JP Briggs and John Pedler, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

McCain, Obama and the Psychology of Decisions
Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. (Photo:

    McCain, Obama and the psychology of decisions.

    The bailout crisis at the beginning of October dramatically illustrated the decision-making psychologies of the two presidential candidates - that is, their ability to deal with ambivalence.

    With the financial debacle coming to a head, John McCain abruptly called for a "suspension" of the campaigns and rushed down the corridors of the Capitol in an effort to clinch the bailout deal. Instead, he threw a hand grenade into the negotiations, giving cover for a majority of House Republicans to humiliate their own party leaders and vote against the bill. He announced to his Republican Senate colleagues that he was prepared to act the maverick: "I appreciate what you've done here, but I'm not going to sign on to a deal just to sign a deal. Just like Iraq, I'm not afraid to go it alone if I need to." For a moment, one of his fellow Republicans said, "You could hear a pin drop. It was just unbelievable."

    Instead of taking the lead in the discussions with the president - discussions McCain had urged as a way to force Obama off the campaign trail - McCain sat silently. For friend and foe alike, the turnabouts by McCain were puzzling.

    By contrast, Barack Obama regularly telephoned Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and others, and preferred to let his Congressional colleagues work out revisions to the bill. He met with his diverse group of economic advisers to hear opposing opinions. He refrained from offering his own plan, he said, to avoid roiling the markets. He thought the candidates should debate the economy and consult with their party, but should stay away from politicizing the discussions in Congress. Nevertheless, after McCain pressed the president for a conclave, Obama attended the meeting and cogently presented the Democrats' case while McCain remained angrily silent.

    In the end, both men decided to support the revised plan, but Obama's decision came after fewer conflicting signals and with more clarity. His widely quoted parable about the need to support the bailout explained in dramatic terms the ambivalence that everyone felt, while offering a nonpartisan metaphor to resolve that ambivalence in their own minds.

    "There will be time to punish those who set this fire, but now is the moment for us to come together and put the fire out," Mr. Obama said, departing from his prepared text. "Think about it. If your neighbor's house is burning, you're not going to spend a whole lot of time saying, well that guy was always irresponsible; he always left the stove on; he always was smoking in bed. All those things may be true, but his house could end up affecting your house. And that's the situation we're in right now."

    It made sense to feel ambivalent about the Bush-Paulson bailout plan. Most in both parties detested it, and wanted no part of it, though for ideologically different reasons. At the same time, both parties felt the need to do something and the plan was the only viable option on the table.

    Contrary to popular belief, ambivalence - the feeling of being torn between opposing paths - lies at the heart of any "real" decision. We all experience ambivalence. In fact, it's pervasive throughout our individual lives: from vacillating between alternatives of what shirt to wear, what food to eat on the menu, what mutual fund not to invest in, to deeper issues: How do I handle my rebellious child? Am I choosing the right path for my future? If a decision is cut and dried, there is in fact no decision to make. The course is simply obvious. But all of our real decisions - small and large - have some degree of ambivalence and uncertainty attached to them.

    How good is an individual at identifying situations where it is appropriate to feel ambivalent and how well does the individual do in transforming ambivalence into a tool for exploring alternatives? Is the individual at the mercy of the ambivalence or is (s)he able to resolve it and explain how the decision fits the context? These may be the most significant signs we have of how reliable that individual might be as a national leader, who must respond to a changing environment filled with genuinely conflicting options that are not easy to sort out.

    For the past eight years, American voters afforded themselves the rare opportunity to observe a president who claims to be immune from any ambivalent feelings in making the kinds of decisions that would give any other leader pause: sending troops to engage in an elective war in Iraq, torturing human beings, saving the planet from climate change, saving the financial system. He has sold himself as a great leader on the basis of his self-confident certainty, and for a long time the public bought it. From a psychological perspective, Bush's repeated assertions that he never experiences doubt in critical matters are simply not credible. They're a dangerous fantasy.

    How do the two men seeking to replace George W. Bush engage the ambivalence of the decision-making process?

    John McCain and Ambivalence

    By presenting himself as a "maverick," John McCain seeks to capitalize on an oppositional psychology that developed in relationship with his father. For a male, the paternal relationship is typically a vital focus in developing identity. McCain's oppositional dynamics seem to dominate the process he uses to make decisions and take action. They reveal themselves in his reflexive defiance of authority, his inability to control his temper, his aura of anger and his touchiness. He is well aware of these characteristics, describing himself as "often impulsive" and admitting, "I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public's."

    He has been known for nastiness as well. In a private school he attended, his peers called him "McNasty" and "the Punk." (Timberg 24) Neither his Vietnam POW experience nor his adult life as a politician cured him of this nastiness, and he gained something of the same reputation among his fellow senators. Former New Hampshire Republican Senator Bob Smith said what he observed from McCain was "more than just temper. It's this need of his to show you that he's above you - a sneering, condescending attitude. It's hurt his relationships in Congress ... " He has also given expression to sometimes shockingly sexist comments and brutish behavior. McCain's nasty side was on display in early October in the tone taken by his campaign.

    On the opposite page of the ledger lies McCain's repentance for his bad behavior and his seemingly genuine impulse to eschew the kind of gutter politics he was subjected to by Carl Rove in the 2000 Republican primary campaign. McCain's frank awareness of his own dark inclinations has made him understandably endearing to both press and public. McCain's honesty can be disarming, as when he confessed in his 2003 biography, "Worth Fighting For," that he has "a tendency to overreact" to "slights" in a manner that is "little changed from the reactions to such provocations I had as a schoolboy."

    As they grow up, children go through several stages of oppositional behavior. It's part of the process of making adjustments to the changing relationship between parents and child. The growing child needs and feels the pressure to be independent. This is countered by the feeling of dependence on the parental bond. The individual resolves the powerful ambivalence between these two feelings by developing an autonomous self. To an important extent, it seems that McCain remains in the struggle. He is not yet free.

    In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain recalls that as a toddler "at the smallest provocation" he would go into oppositional mode by holding his breath until he passed out: "I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious." His parents responded by cooling him off in a bathtub of ice-cold water. His biography suggests young McCain had deep reasons to rebel. He was expected to follow his father - who eventually made four-star admiral - into Annapolis and a Navy career. McCain's grandfather had been an admiral and key leader in the Pacific campaign during World War II. A McCain ancestor had served on George Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War. McCains had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. But young John McCain didn't want to attend the Academy and endure its regimentation. As McCain's biographer, Robert Timberg, dramatizes it in "John McCain, An American Odyssey," McCain "knew that if he said what he thought - hold it, screw Annapolis, the place sucks - shock waves would reverberate through countless generations of McCains, shaking a military tradition."

    McCain's relationship with his father embodies an ambivalent tension he continued to feel throughout his life. Even as he admired his father, McCain has admitted he resented the "distant, inscrutable patriarch" for his long absences and uninvolvement in his son's life, and for his heavy drinking. (Faith 70) McCain wrote that drinking changed his father's personality "in unattractive ways. When he was drunk, I did not recognize him" and "I didn't like to see him drunk. It changed my image of him." (Timberg 30) "I admired him, and wanted badly to be admired by him," McCain also says in his autobiography.

    Growing up, McCain rebelled against his father and the authority of his family tradition by acting out with punkish, nasty, sometimes reckless behavior. Timberg remarks that McCain felt himself pushed by "forces he felt incapable of challenging." (33) McCain told him that he felt the strong forces were dragging him into his family pattern. "Perhaps that's why I practiced this rebellion against the system, always walking on the edge," McCain said.

    At the Academy, McCain's insubordinate behavior with superior officers would have gotten any other cadet expelled. But he was a McCain. Ironically - an irony probably not lost on McCain - he could get away with such cheekiness precisely because of his father and the family history he was rebelling against. This irony would later organize his experience as a prisoner in North Vietnam.

    The public doesn't know much about what is in the psychiatric reports drawn up on McCain after he returned from Vietnam, but we do know that one psychiatrist concluded McCain had been in a long struggle to escape "the shadow of his father." The emotional force of this "shadow" shows up poignantly in a story McCain tells in "Faith of My Fathers." McCain writes he had particularly bad exchanges with a fellow midshipman, whose real name McCain changes to "Witt" for the purposes of the narrative. Witt (a play on wit?) had tormented McCain about McCain's privileged status as the son and grandson of commanding officers and the special leeway he received at Annapolis as a result. Midshipman Witt, McCain tells us, was himself the son of a noncommissioned officer, the Navy's "working" class leaders. McCain admits that his great feeling of animosity toward Witt changed when Witt died. Witt, McCain learned, "was serving as a flight instructor at a naval air station in the south and had flown his T-28 to the town where his father had retired from the navy. As he flew in front of his parents' home and unwisely attempted a dangerous maneuver, he lost control of his plane and crashed while his parents watched. Considering all the adversaries that a human being confronts in a lifetime, what had passed between Witt and me was nothing. I was embarrassed that I had taken his abuse so seriously. Animosity dissolved into regret after I learned of his death. I assumed his death had been caused by an impulse to impress his father." In describing Witt's motivation for the risky maneuver, McCain was also, of course, describing his own.

    The struggle between identifying with the authority of his father versus rebelling against him became acute during McCain's wartime captivity. In a heavily researched article on McCain's role in shrouding details of POWs who may have been left behind in North Vietnam, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney H. Schanberg writes:

    "McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing to his high-ranking father and thus his propaganda value ... McCain expresses guilt at having broken under torture and given the confession. 'I felt faithless and couldn't control my despair ... ' Tellingly, he says he lived in 'dread' that his father would find out about the confession. 'I still wince,' he writes, 'when I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace.'"

    In an article in Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson points out that despite McCain's urgent desire to conform to the code of military conduct (the rules that govern the behavior of troops taken prisoner), McCain violated it. Dickinson writes, "Soon after McCain hit the ground in Hanoi, the code went out the window. 'I'll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital,' he later admitted pleading with his captors. McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them." McCain says he knew "my father's identity was directly related to my survival." Following his torture ordeal and forced "confession," McCain was returned to the general prison population and immediately became defiant and verbally abusive to his warders. (Timberg 99) He pushed the line as he had in the Academy, but he also knew he had the protection of being "the crown prince," as he was called, Admiral McCain's son.

    The point of repeating this well-documented account is not to impugn in any way McCain's courage or his service. From a psychiatric perspective - now more generally recognized - the military code of conduct is unrealistic in its demands on individuals undergoing extreme stress and torture where they are faced with resolving, in moments of atrocious mental and physical agony, the impossible choice of abstract "honor" against the very survival of life, dignity or sanity. Our point is that McCain's ambivalent theme of conformity versus rebellion seems to have become entangled in his POW experience. That experience now added twists and turns to the anguish of guilt and rationalization for what he perceived was his own failure to live up to the honor of his father and grandfather.

    The entanglement was on display while he was a member of the Senate POW Committee responding to families of soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. As Schanberg reports, McCain was "far from calm" on the committee. "He browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them, brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been versions of: how dare you question my patriotism?" Project Censored winner Elliot D. Cohen reported one case of POW/MIA family members who came to petition Senator McCain. "When he [McCain] realized who we were, his face turned red and he became enraged. He would not accept the letters we had brought, he burst through our group assaulting the niece of Jane Duke Gaylor, mother of a MIA. I followed Senator McCain down the hall asking that he leave the legislation alone and all the while he is denying that he knew anything about the Missing Personnel Act ... [patently untrue] As we reached the elevator, he said to me that I didn't know what he had been through ... "In the context of McCain's unresolved ambivalence going back to his early opposition to his father, it makes psychological sense that he could display the apparent contradiction of tender affection for the troops at the same time that he votes against expanded medical and other GI benefits for them.

    A recent word slip during the campaign in October suggests that McCain's POW ambivalences (including rebellion versus conformity) has become linked in his psyche with the stress of the presidential campaign. McCain has rebelled against his own principles of running a "respectful campaign" by going into smear mode against Obama. Speaking to supporters in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he made the slip that hearkens back to his agonized state of mind at the Hanoi Hilton. "Across this country, this is the agenda I have set before my fellow prisoners and the same standards of clarity and candor must now be applied to my opponent." His prepared remarks called for him to say "fellow citizens" not "fellow prisoners." The content of his Allentown remarks covers the question of honesty and honor, the same issue he confronted as a POW.

    There may also be psychological meaning to the fact that he was standing with Sarah Palin when he made this slip. McCain appears to be feeling as he felt when a prisoner. That's what this slip suggests. He's a prisoner of his own rebellion against himself. The Palin candidacy came from this self-rebellion. Effectively prevented by his advisers from choosing his friend Joe Lieberman for vice president, McCain made a "maverick" choice "to shake things up" with the little-known governor. He clearly felt forced to conform to the authority of the evangelical Republican "base" (he had once called them "agents of intolerance") rather than his own authority. The radical base didn't like John McCain nor he them. Choosing Palin - a woman, a radical evangelical, a person without substantial experience and a person pressing him to run what McCain had forsworn, a dishonorable, slashing campaign - pitted him against his own grain. To make matters worse, Palin is clearly more popular with most Republicans than he is, so that at times it appears that she is the top of the ticket and not he. He seems forced and secondary standing beside her. If McCain's first reflex in a charged situation is to rebel against whatever authority he perceives is in control, when he is the authority he engenders a problem. In October, the public saw the dark side of the maverick in operation as McCain and his campaign ginned up anger and resentment against Obama and then McCain attempted to tamp the anger down. This was McCain rebelling up to the line, but pulling back so as not to cross it, just as he had at the Academy and as a POW.

    At this point, the two sides of McCain's ambivalence - conforming versus rebellion - have become so inextricably confused that the Obama campaign and the press could accuse McCain of being "risky" and "erratic" as he lurched from one idea to its opposite, his obedient angels and his rebellious angels at war with each other.

    All of this suggests an analogy: When McCain faces a decision his psychology becomes like a rider on a horse. He spurs the horse forward with his heels and reigns back the head. Sometimes, animal and rider make a daring pirouette. Sometimes, the horse rears up and throws the rider off.

    Barack Obama and Ambivalence

    Barack Obama has evolved into a very different sort of decision maker.

    His biography and his behavior in the last two years suggest that, in the parlance of psychoanalysis, Obama has "worked through" his relationship with his father and the accompanying ambivalence that this relationship involved. To be clear, we are making psychological observations here, not diagnoses of either candidate.

    As we've observed, when "the decider," George W. Bush, makes a decision, he suppresses feeling the ambivalence of conflicting options. Bush's process is dominated by the need to disguise his anxiety and control his fear of inadequacy. He pretends to feel no ambivalence or anxiety. As a result, the defensive process of avoiding the ambivalence itself drives his decisions.

    In comparison, John McCain appears far more actively aware that his process is dominated by an internal struggle between conforming to the authority he feels is in control and rebelling against it. He also appears aware that his internal conflict is unresolved and that it goes back to his childhood. Nevertheless, his awareness seems not to have led him to a reliable way of avoiding the erratic behavior that the conforming-rebelling conflict produces in him. Sometimes rebelling (being a maverick) is the right approach; sometimes it isn't. The evidence suggests that McCain is not fully in control of the process and that his personal internal ambivalence remains in conflict and sometimes clouds his decision-making process.

    Barack Obama's biography, "Dreams From My Father," shows he is subtly aware of the internal drama that centered on his father. We believe that insights he achieved from reflecting on that drama have enabled him to transform his childhood ambivalence into an approach to decision-making. The approach turns ambivalence itself into a tool for exploring alternatives and seeing the larger picture.

    In fact, Obama had almost no direct relationship with this father. Obama Sr., an exchange student from Kenya, met Ann Dunham at the University of Hawaii, where they were both studying. They married. He then left his wife and two-year-old son - later presidential candidate - in order to study at Harvard. The son was too young to remember him. Under orders from his own father, Obama Sr. returned home to Kenya and divorced Ann. Subsequently, Obama saw his father only once, during a month-long visit when he was ten. In the meantime, much had happened. His mother had married an Indonesian man she also met at the University of Hawaii, and they had moved to Jakarta when Obama was six. There he started school. At ten, he returned to Honolulu to be raised by his white grandparents, with his mother home intermittently from her field work in Indonesia. Attending a private high school in Hawaii, Obama abused marijuana, cocaine and alcohol. He went to the mainland for junior college. In 1982, while he was in New York attending Columbia University, he heard that his father had been killed in a car crash in Kenya.

    Growing up, the younger Obama knew his father only as a myth told by his white mother and white grandparents. Obama constructs "Dreams From My Father" as a journey to discover who his father really was. In the myth, Obama Sr. was charming, smart, studious, independent, a man of fearless integrity. He was also absent. Shortly after learning that his father was coming to Hawaii for a visit, the ten-year-old Obama compensated for the absence and incorporated the myth in an understandable way, "Over lunch, I explained to a group of boys that my father was a prince."

    The month of the visit supercharged Obama's unique version of that ambivalence that boys feel toward their fathers, such ambivalence as John McCain and George W. Bush felt for theirs. Obama writes feelingly of the scattered images he retains of that interlude:

    "Whenever he spoke - his one leg draped over the other, his large hands outstretched to direct or deflect attention, his voice deep and sure, cajoling and laughing - I would see a sudden change take place in the family."

    His grandfather would become "more vigorous and thoughtful," his mother "more bashful," his grandmother less reclusive, "sparring with him about politics or finance, stabbing the air with her blue-veined hand to make a point ... It fascinated me, this strange power of his, and for the first time I began to think of my father as something real and immediate."

    But as the month wore on, he heard the complaints from his grandmother that she felt like his father's "servant," and he observed his mother's stress. One night, his father snapped off a television show the boy was watching and sent him to his room to study, telling him, "You do not work as hard as you should. Go now, before I get angry with you."

    Obama observes that the family was shocked at the tone:

    "We all stood accused ... I felt as if something had cracked open between all of us, goblins rushing out of the same old, sealed-off lair."

    When Obama's teacher invites his father to talk to the fifth grade class, Obama fears the worst; he foresees his classmates hearing about "mud huts" and himself exposed in the lie about his father as a prince. (69)

    To his relief, the father describes Kenya in such a noble fashion that a classmate concludes, "Your dad is pretty cool." Before returning to Kenya, Obama's father puts on old jazz records and teaches his son how to dance. "And I hear him still: As I follow my father into the sound, he lets out a quick shout, bright and high, a shout that leaves much behind and reaches out for more, a shout that cries for laughter." (71) (Young Obama's observations of his father's contradictory character were apparently quite accurate and acute, later independently confirmed by journalists who interviewed classmates and others who knew "the Old Man.") And then his father vanished again.

    The conflicting feelings around the absent father become the center of a bigger storm for this son of a white woman and African man. "Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant."

    It can hardly be overstated that Obama's search for how to think and feel about his father - how to resolve his ambivalent feelings about him - was also his search for resolution of his identity as black man in America.

    In a New York Review of Books article comparing Obama's quest to that of the writer James Baldwin, Irish novelist Colm T-ibín writes, "Both men then, using photographs and memories, commented on their fathers' blackness. In both cases it seemed important to state or suggest that the father was more black than the son. Baldwin wrote that there was something buried in his father which had lent him 'his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think - he was very black - with his blackness and his beauty.'" Observing the look on his mother's face as she watches a film showing blacks singing and dancing in a Rio carnival, Obama realizes that he has "been given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth ... simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different." (124) He turns away, embarrassed. Added to this is his white grandmother's fear of blacks passing in the street despite the fact she is raising and genuinely loving a biracial grandson.

    So, where could he place himself in a society that followed the one percent principle, a world where one drop of black blood made you a black man and where, within the black community, you might not be black enough?

    During the primary season, the press took up the drumbeat of wondering whether Obama was "black enough" or "too black" to get support from the black community and the white community. He was accused of being elite because he "talked white." While the objective reality may be that he's "multiracial," the Gordian knot of ambivalence - "good black, bad black," white racism, white guilt - remains: if you're black in America, you're defined in a dualistic way.

    As Obama told Charlie Rose, "If I'm outside your building trying to catch a cab, they're not saying, 'Oh, there's a mixed race guy.'" But what exactly is the definition of race in our society? In mid-October, as Obama pulled ahead in the polls, the racial issue resurfaced in the press with a new version of the knot - discussions of "The Bradley Effect," in which voters lie to pollsters to conceal their racial bias, whether new black voters would overcome the effect, whether there could be a "Reverse Bradley Effect," with some whites hiding their desire to vote for a black man, or whether any such effects even existed. The whole thing became utterly confused, just as black identity is (and has always been) profoundly confused in this country.

    An identity crisis, which we all go through to some degree when we're young and sometimes much longer, is a crisis about what your possibilities are. How can you give a shape to your passage through the world? In this society, how does a black man (or black woman) do it? What is forbidden? What allowed? (These last two questions are the same ones John McCain was asking about his own identity.)

    Writer Darryl Pinkney says Obama "learned to slip back and forth between his black and white worlds, 'understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.' Yet racial self-consciousness left him on edge. 'There was a trick there somewhere, although what the trick was, who was doing the tricking, and who was being tricked, eluded my conscious grasp.'" Throughout "Dreams From My Father," Obama describes his encounters with people who have tried to resolve the ambivalences and ambiguities of being a black American in different ways. Some are defiant against white society, others resigned to diminished status, others simply attempt to take charge of their lives. One person tells him blacks are "always playing on the white man's court by the white man's rules." (85) Another seeks to ignore the white world and focus on "black self respect." Obama listens nonjudgmentally to these individuals, trying to understand how their histories led them to their resolutions, assessing the benefits and drawbacks of each, himself not accepting any.

    The American public saw Obama's openness to the identity problem at work in his March 18, 2008, speech on race in response to the controversy over his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. There, Obama condemned Wright's "offending sermons," but argued against the "mistake" to "simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality." He portrayed Wright as a complex man, who served his country as a marine and worked tirelessly to house the homeless and minister to the needy. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me ... I can no more disown than I can disown the black community." This nuanced understanding of Wright is similar to the one that eventually emerged in his view of his father.

    After his African half-sister, Auma, visits him and shares her own experiences with their father, Obama realizes that ambivalence has trapped him. He writes that his image of his father had "remained so contradictory - sometimes one thing, sometimes another, but never the two things at once - I would find myself, at random moments in the day, feeling as if I was living out a preordained script, as if I were following him into error, a captive of his tragedy." (Dreams 227)

    At age 27, during a summer between community organizing in Chicago and starting Harvard Law School, Obama traveled to Kenya and directly entered his father's tangled web of relationships and stories. He heard about his father's aspirations and failures, his over-weaning pride and drunken deterioration, his generosity and cruelty, his suffering. He learned about his father's struggle with his own father before him.

    Already awakened to the contradictions swirling inside his feelings about his father, Obama suspended himself within them, listening for his father's voice: "I see him in the schoolboys who run past us, their lean, black legs moving like piston rods between blue shorts and oversized shoes. I hear him in the laughter of the pair of university students who sip sweet creamed tea and eat samosas in a dimly lit teahouse. I smell him in the cigarette smoke of the businessman who covers one ear and shouts into a pay phone; in the sweat of a day laborer who loads gravel into a wheelbarrow, his face and bare chest covered with dust. The Old Man's here, I think, although he doesn't say anything to me. He's here, asking me to understand."

    In his openness to his silent father, Obama experiences a transformation that is subtle and almost mystical. He is able to identify with his father's plight and yet to disentangle what is similar to his own plight and what is different. He discovers, he tells us, a paradox of identity: that you must invent ("raise") yourself, but that you can never escape yourself or "recreate yourself alone." In his autobiography, he calls accepting this paradox a matter of "faith." It's "a faith that wasn't new, that wasn't black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead - a faith in other people."

    Baldwin had written, "to become a Negro man ... one had to make oneself up as one went along ... ," to which Obama, in effect, now added, 'with the help of others.' His search for a relationship with his father and his exploration of racial identity that surrounds that relationship seems to have left him calm, comfortable in his own skin. It seems to allow him to take the racial issue with more grains of salt than might reasonably be expected in our racially confused society. In June 2008, he joked to members of a black church, as reported by Reuters: 'You remember at the beginning, people were wondering - how come he doesn't have all the support in the African American community. You remember that?' he said to shouts of 'oh yeah.' That was when I wasn't black enough. Now I'm 'too black,' he said to laughter and applause." In terms of decision-making, Obama's odyssey in quest of his identity as a black American suggests an individual willing to interrogate his own ambivalence and uncertainty and even plunge directly into it with daring and confidence in expectation that staying there for a while - exploring - will lead to something valuable.

    In a PBS special on the candidates' decision-making process, Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod describes the candidate as "very methodical in how he evaluates decisions. He asks a series of questions. He'll engage in dialogue on the options. And then he'll make a decision. And he doesn't look back at that decision." Axelrod says that when considering Joe Biden for the vice president slot, Obama was not at all put off by those who warned that Biden was a strong personality full of opinions. Alexrod says Obama told him that that was exactly what he wanted because he felt Biden was completely comfortable with very bright people and even enjoyed being challenged - like Obama himself.

    Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser, says Obama is also known for "making everybody feel as though their viewpoint has been heard and appreciated. So even if you happen to be on the losing end of a decision, you feel like your perspectives have been valued, which makes it much more easy for you to be enthusiastic in supporting the decision he ultimately makes." All of the above characteristics seem to flow naturally from the interior journey Obama made in quest of his racial identity. On the other side, Obama has been accused of being too calm and cool, too emotionally distant. We believe this stems from what Pinkney observed as Obama's "talent for watchfulness, part of the extraordinary armor he developed at an early age."

    The American Voters' Ambivalence

    It's important to recognize that as voters we're also ambivalent. The great national ambivalence at this moment in history shows itself in the "change" mantra adopted by both campaigns. Clearly, we want change. But we also want stability. So, McCain portrays Obama as change that's risky, and now Obama counters that McCain's change is "erratic." Reformer, maverick, steady hand on the tiller, "hope," "change we can believe in," "change we need," a "yes we can" attitude, more of the same versus a new direction, experience versus youthful energy and new ideas. Round and around we circle until November 4.

    In the end, presidential elections test us as a nation founded on the idea that by creating dynamic balances between individuality and community, diversity and unity, independence and consensus, we can achieve great energy and purpose. Will this be a time when we get caught in a conflict of those ambivalences, or will it be a time when we marshal and balance them again into positive directions?


    John P. Briggs, M.D. is retired from over 40 years of private practice in psychotherapy in Westchester County, New York. He was on the faculty in psychiatry at the Columbia Medical Center in New York City for 23 years and was a long-time member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. He trained at the William Alanson White Institute in New York. For 20 years, he practiced co-therapy for married couples with his late wife, Muriel. During the Korean War he served for two years as a Navy psychiatrist.

    JP Briggs II, Ph.D. is a distinguished CSU professor at Western Connecticut State University, specializing in creative process. He is an author and co-author of books on creativity and chaos, including "Fire in the Crucible" (St. Martins Press); "Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos" (Simon and Schuster); "Seven Life Lessons of Chaos" (HarperCollins); and a collection of short stories, "Trickster Tales" (Fine Tooth Press). He is currently at work on a book about the power of ambivalence with Philadelphia psychologist John Amoroso. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

John Pedler

John Pedler is a former British diplomat, now a diplomatic consultant based in France.
Last modified on Monday, 20 October 2008 17:45