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Obama’s America: Id, Ego and Super-Ego

Barack Obama’s conduct as President baffles us – just as his personality eludes us. Design and purpose seem to be equally lacking even as the man exudes a strong sense of elitist superiority and his words convey high-minded aspirations. The puzzle lends itself more to psychological analysis than to political analysis. Here is one formulation that may shed light on his behavior in office.

Obama sees three points of reference in the collective American public personality. The Tea Party types are the ID. They represent primal energy, drive and inspiration. Then there is the EGO represented by the Establishment in all its forms. They are the very core of our national personality and the main pillar of our public life. At no time is their basic credibility and centrality to be questioned (and thereby weakening its structural integrity). Protecting the Establishment is his overriding responsibility as President – as he did during the financial crisis by comforting the Wall Street robber barons, and as he did in rushing to reassure the CIA that they were respected and appreciated during his first week in office. Finally, the SUPER-EGO is represented by “enlightened” liberals (and Lincolnesque Republicans of rectitude, now extinct) who exercise a slight counterweight to the Id and a mild restraining influence on the Ego when it threatens to become too self-serving or excessive in doing what has to be done. To him, keeping the Super-Ego from hamstringing the Ego is principal part of his job.

Obama fears the Id and believes that its vital energy must be released or appeased so that it does not set the personality on a collision course with reality. Moreover, when a major branch of the Establishment tells him that certain measures must be taken, his instinctive reaction is to give the message the benefit of any doubt – whether it be perpetuating the futile war in Afghanistan, subordinating American interests in the Middle East to the Pentagon’s base mania, or blessing whatever the CIA or NSA want at home as well as abroad.

Where does the Syrian imbroglio fit in?   He talks tough about regime change, ISIL and “red lines” but refrains from direct military action. He acknowledges no contradiction between the first and second objectives. For Obama, his task is to respond to stimuli and others’ impulses as they arise, rather than to shape things through purposeful policies that integrate actions. The same uneasy co-existence of words and deeds is even more evident in regard to Russia’s intervention – a “game-changer” if ever there were one that Obama deals with by sublimation. He takes every opportunity to disparage Putin personally yet never addresses where the Russia factor fits into the equation. Strategy is distinguished by its absence – something that doesn’t seem to trouble him. Contradictions are elided so as not to antagonize Erdogan, the Saudi royals, or John McCain and his fellow blow-hards.  Al-Qaeda’s major presence is conveniently overlooked by a verbal sleight-of-hand that pronounces them “moderate rebels.”

Liberals are befriended so long as they are of the “we must do something for humanity” kind. The R2P crew are an odd lot; they began as an expression of the Super-ego, then came to bridge the divide between it and the Ego, and now have been melded into the Establishment. That is one of Obama’s ‘accomplishments’ on this and other fronts.

When the Ego’s proposed actions coincide with the impulses of the Id, Obama yields. At the same time, he feels the need to respect the Super-ego in ensuring that those actions do not go to extremes. He, in effect, embodies all three components – or so he believes. Obama, the philosopher-king, superintends all – an attitude most clearly expressed in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address. I leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks.

Hence, Syria is vintage Obama. His rhetoric and conduct conforms to a well-established pattern. In the absence of conviction about most matters, his instinct to avoid contention and confrontation prevails. That gives the advantage to those powers-that-be who are more dedicated and more ruthless than he. They may be domestic parties: the Republican leadership, the Wall Street movers & shakers, Big Pharma, the Pentagon, the Intelligence agencies, the neocons whom he has invited into his own administration. Or, they are foreign leaders: Netanyahu, Erdogan, the Saudi royals. For Obama’s deference, at once intellectual and political, affords others the opportunity to frame the issue and to set the terms of the discourse. That generates a momentum of its own which increases the requirements for overcoming it and raises the costs to him of trying to counter it – if he in fact is open to ideas other than those that have taken shape in the interaction between Id and Ego – and foreign entities.

Some point to his handling of the Iran nuclear deal as evidence to the contrary. I don’t believe that to be the case. It was Obama’s complicity in depicting Iran as evil incarnate, his passivity in allowing Netanyahu to humiliate him in Congress, and failure to place the matter in the context of a different strategic frame of reference for the Middle East that put him at a disadvantage. In the end, he had only two choices: accept the deal (for which he in fact made very few concessions, thereby risking a failure were Iran not committed to getting one) or contemplate war. Since he has not the fortitude for the latter and did not harbor genuine fears of Iran, there was no doubt as to which way he would go. It was not a deliberate choice, but rather the logical outcome of uncongenial circumstances he himself had created. (For an elaboration of this interpretation, see my analysis attached)

One further elaboration of the original metaphor. In times past – 30-40 years ago, the balance among collective personality components was different. For one thing, the Id was not as powerful and unrestrained. For another, segments of the Ego had assimilated significant precepts and principles of the Super-Ego.

Example: Trump never could have received the degree of fervent support that he now has. Moreover, the entire Establishment would have come down hard on him – instead of fawning on him as the TV people do or saying nothing critical of him or his crackpot ideas as the print media are now doing. Every halfway respectful newspaper in the country, Republican and Democrat, would have denounced Trump. Here in Austin, the “liberal” hometown paper in this Democratic leaning town has yet to write a single editorial condemning any of his ghastly statements or proposals. It worries about alienating the red-neck portion of its readership. And, after all, Texas Tea Partiers occupy every high office just up the street. This pattern replicates itself across the country.

Barack Obama himself has used only the mildest of language in disagreeing with Trump on one or two occasions, e.g. Syrian refugees, a ban on Muslim entry to the United States.  His minions are equally reticent. They lead no sustained counter attack. Does he fear that a frontal attack will make the Id go berserk?

In short, the Id is on amphetamines; the Super-ego is on sedatives; the Ego has become aggressively self-serving; and the great equilibrator is dreaming of his presidential afterlife. Any wonder that we’re in such deep trouble.

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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