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Justin Frank, M.D., Puts President Obama on the Couch (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 19, 2011: When I listened to Candidate Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, he sounded as though he was going to be Superman if elected. According to one count, he made 500 campaign promises regarding legislative and policy initiatives that he would undertake if elected. Of course he campaigned on the promise of change and hope. But did he actually believe his own rhetoric? Did he have any doubts that if elected he might not be able to deliver all that he seemed to be promising? Did he consider that he might be raising expectations that he probably could not fulfill if elected? Did he give any thought to how his supporters might turn on him when he predictably failed to fulfill their expectations based on his rhetoric about change and his promises? Or did he actually expect that his supporters to know how to downsize his big talk and thereby not have big expectations for him if elected?

Conversely, what about his supporters? Did they buy into his big talk, or did they understand that they were not supposed to have big expectations of him if elected, because his big talk was just so much talk to get them to vote for him? A politician will tell the voters what they want to hear to get their votes, eh?

With these and other questions in mind, I decided to read Dr. Justin Frank's new book OBAMA ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT (Free Press, 2011). Dr. Frank is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who uses a Freudian model heavily influenced by the work of Melanie Klein. Dr. Frank himself has never met or interviewed President Obama. Nor has Dr. Frank interviewed people who know Obama and/or have worked with him. All of Dr. Frank's information regarding President Obama comes from the public domain, including of course Obama's two autobiographies, two biographies of Obama, and numerous books and articles about Obama.

It turns out that Dr. Frank, an enthusiastic supporter of Candidate Obama, does not discuss in detail the questions above regarding the expectations that Candidate Obama raised and the predictability of the likelihood that he would not live up to the expectations he raised, because no mortal could. Arguably not even Superman could have lived up to the expectations that Candidate Obama raised.

But Dr. Frank does make an observation that is relevant to considering the questions above when he describes one of Obama's big-sounding speeches envisioning some hypothetical rhetorical healing of the country as involving "more manic than genuine" healing (page 34). But here are my questions regarding Obama's healing shtick: Whatever put it into Obama's head that this country is in need of some kind of healing and that it is his mission in life to work toward healing whatever it is in the country that needs to be healed? What exactly are we as a country in need of being healed of? In other words, what exactly is the problem?

Next, why does he think that he is the one who is supposed to exhort us toward being healed of whatever ails us as a country?

I know, I know, he is the first African American to be elected president. But does he imagine that he is called upon to exhort us to some kind of healing of anti-black racism, for example? He does not explicitly thematize anti-black racism as the problem that cries out to be healed in this country. Even if he did, does he claim to know how anti-black racists should go about healing themselves of their racist attitudes toward blacks?

Or is the problem for Obama that we have red states and blue states, which is to say that we have our political differences? If this is the problem for Obama, does he fear that we are on the brink of another civil war? But if he does not fear that we are on the brink of another civil war, then what exactly is the problem with having red states and blue states?

In addition, Dr. Frank cogently observes, "Because Obama was unknown to many Americans before he ran for president, our perception of him was originally based in large part on transference of our own hopes, fears, and expectations" (page 234).

To the extent that this kind of transference did indeed occur in Candidate Obama's supporters, watch out for their disillusionment with President Obama. When transferences occur, they are powerful. Transferences activate powerful psychodynamics within us. In general, psychoanalysis aims to work with transferences. When the client makes transferences on to the psychotherapist, then the psychotherapist is in a better position to help the client than the psychotherapist is in before the client makes a transference on to the psychotherapist. So if Candidate Obama's supporters made transferences on to him, then they are probably by now disillusioned with him, which could now put them in a position to analyze their transferences, provided that they want to undertake doing this. Of course instead of undertaking to do this kind of analysis, they may just rest satisfied with being disillusioned with him.

I do not know enough about psychoanalytic theory to offer a significant modification to Klein's. However, I have recently noticed that two very young babies who have just learned a word or two (such as the word "Hi") do like to get my attention, even though I am just a stranger walking by, and that they are extraordinarily pleased with themselves when I respond to their initiatives of saying "Hi" and say "Hi" back to them. On two recent occasions, I have been charmed by having a very young baby say "Hi" to me evidently just to see if I'd say "Hi" back. On each occasion, I have been delighted to say "Hi" back to the friendly baby. In each instance, the parent present was also charmed by the baby's friendliness. Candidate Obama got our attention with his big-sounding friendly campaign rhetoric, eh? When he was a very young baby who had just learned a word or two, do you suppose that he liked to say "Hi" and hear someone else say "Hi" back to him? Do you suppose that as a baby he liked to say "Hi" even to strangers he came into contact with? I imagine that he did.

Even though Dr. Frank does not explicitly address the questions I have raised above, he does proceed to raise eleven key questions about President Obama that he plans to address in his book (pages 6-7):

(1) "How does he come across so differently to different people yet remain an enigma to many?"

(2) "How does he attract identification from such a wide variety of people yet leave so many of them disappointed?"

(3) "Why has someone who campaigned for change so often seemed so tentative?"

(4) "What lies behind his exceptional facility with language -- and why do his actions so rarely live up to his words?"

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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If President Obama wants to be re-elected in 2012,... by Thomas Farrell on Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011 at 9:22:14 PM
I voted for him as the obvious choice rather than ... by Dawn Owens on Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011 at 10:05:05 PM
Your outrage with Obama is justified and understan... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 3:41:00 PM
The good doctor ignores things like Obama being th... by Robert James on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 1:15:53 PM
Dr. Frank does discuss Obama and the HARVARD LAW R... by Thomas Farrell on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 3:55:38 PM
sure he can[[NOBELL]]... by . . on Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 at 2:25:06 AM
Dr. Frank and other Obama supporters should have r... by BARB BF on Sunday, Oct 23, 2011 at 5:25:18 PM