The Enigma of Obama

A school of thought is emerging that Barack Obama has an advanced form of narcissistic personality disorder. I heartily agree with Robert Bowie Johnson and Dr. Sam Vaknin  in their shared conclusion, but I reached it from a somewhat different route. I had been trying to write an article comparing our political candidates to circus freaks such as chameleons, phoobs, and contortionists. But I was stumped when I came to Obama, who seems to partake of all of these metaphors.

How can one categorize a man who combines:

  • a revivalist's grandiose and extravagant oratory,
  • a charismatic talent for swaying crowds for no logical reason that they can explain,
  • bewilderingly contradictory changes in positions on issues,
  • a squidlike ability to befog and blur statements into ambiguous or ominous vagaries,
  • an inflated image (and self-image) covering a naïve and meager mental ability,
  • a penchant for gaffes and misstatements combined with a dismissal of any corrections as irrelevant or malignant,
  • a humorless rigidity, elitist aloofness, and perpetual air of condescension, and
  • a thin-skinned aggrievement at being misinterpreted or of having his privacy violated.
It's like trying to cram a three-ring circus into a pup tent. Unlike a chameleon, he maintains a constant personal image; it is only his positions that change. He shares the ignorance and self confidence of megaegos, but they doggedly stick to one set of dogmas while he changes them with the ease of a shapeshifter. Moreover, he maintains conflicting positions with more grace than a contortionist and more rigidity than an india-rubber man.  

I tried thinking of him as a Jekyll-Hyde case. I imagined the leftist Dr. Barack, having won the nomination, drinking a potion and turning into the centrist Mr. Obama for the final campaign. I had to discard this model because Obama manages to hold conflicting positions simultaneously, like one of those images under ridged plastic that changes back and forth as you tilt it.

I next thought of Obama as an amoeba [no anagram intended], incessantly changing its detailed shape to engulf its prey while maintaining a constant overall appearance. This suggested the image of an amoeba splitting in two (one to reassure the liberals while the other woos the centrists) or of Siamese twins or a two-headed man-a perfect freak for my political sideshow.

And then I saw the ads for "The Dark Knight". Of course, Barack Obama is Harvey Dent!  Imagine Two Face in the White House, with his subservient aides saying: "Mister President, Iran has just detonated an atomic bomb. Should we attack them or negotiate?" Without a word, the coin flips up and spins in mid-air....

But all this imagery iconizes only one facet of Obama. His penchant for pyrotechnic oratory calls to mind a sideshow barker or snake oil salesman. His charisma suggests a hypnotist, or perhaps the daring young man on the flying trapeze. His pompous humorlessness suggests Victorian icons that I have described elsewhere. But his most prominent trait is the incongruous combination of meager mental resources, as evidenced by his frequent gaffes and childishly naïve pronouncements, with a greatly inflated self-image of his expertise and capabilities.

I then thought of one of those huge balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. There is something like that in C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, wherein one of the damned spirits, an ugly silent dwarf, leads around a large impressive puppet that speaks for him like a ventriloquist's dummy. Or like the old man in "Men in Black", who turns out to be a robot operated by a tiny alien sitting at the control panel inside its head.

But these extravagant fantasies are needless excesses. As she occasionally does, Maureen Dowd managed to pinpoint Obama precisely:

He seems more like a child prodigy. Those enraptured with his gifts urge him on, like anxious parents, trying to pull that sustained, dazzling performance out of him that they believe he's capable of; they are willing to put up with the prodigy's occasional listlessness and crabbiness, his flights of self-regard and self-righteousness.

But Dowd did not carry her analysis far enough. As Johnson and Vaknin and others have already pointed out, the traits she hints at would alert a psychologist to the likelihood of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), whose symptoms  include

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance; exaggerates achievements and talents; expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
  • Need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Selfishness; taking advantage of others to achieve own ends
  • Lack of empathy
  • Arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behavior or attitudes.
It is important to realize that NPD is much more dangerous than simple vanity. Even closer to Dowd's precocious-child model  is Joanna Ashmun's description of NPD:

"Narcissists have normal, even superior, intellectual development while remaining emotionally and morally immature. Dealing with them can give you the sense of trying to have a reasonable discussion with a very clever six-year-old -- this is an age when normal children are grandiose and exhibitionistic, when they are very resistant to taking the blame for their own misbehavior, when they understand what the rules are (e.g., that lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited) but are still trying to wriggle out of accepting those rules for themselves."

The Dowd-Ashmum model, which seems to account for all of the Obamic traits listed above, moves us to pity and then horror. A child with NPD is bad enough -- but what if that child had the immense power of the President of the United States? As if to answer that question, Ashmun's website refers to Jerome Bixby's famous short story "It's a Good Life", in which a small boy is omnipotent, to the servile terror of everyone else in his village. A plot summary can be found in Wikipedia.  The whole story can be found here

But I warn you that, if you read it, you will be very anxious until the election is over -- and perhaps even more so in the years to come.
A school of thought is emerging that Barack Obama has an advanced form of narcissistic personality disorder. I heartily agree with Robert Bowie Johnson and Dr. Sam Vaknin  in their shared conclusion, but I reached it from a somewhat different route. I had been trying to write an article comparing our political candidates to circus freaks such as chameleons, phoobs, and contortionists. But I was stumped when I came to Obama, who seems to partake of all of these metaphors.

How can one categorize a man who combines:

  • a revivalist's grandiose and extravagant oratory,
  • a charismatic talent for swaying crowds for no logical reason that they can explain,
  • bewilderingly contradictory changes in positions on issues,
  • a squidlike ability to befog and blur statements into ambiguous or ominous vagaries,
  • an inflated image (and self-image) covering a naïve and meager mental ability,
  • a penchant for gaffes and misstatements combined with a dismissal of any corrections as irrelevant or malignant,
  • a humorless rigidity, elitist aloofness, and perpetual air of condescension, and
  • a thin-skinned aggrievement at being misinterpreted or of having his privacy violated.
It's like trying to cram a three-ring circus into a pup tent. Unlike a chameleon, he maintains a constant personal image; it is only his positions that change. He shares the ignorance and self confidence of megaegos, but they doggedly stick to one set of dogmas while he changes them with the ease of a shapeshifter. Moreover, he maintains conflicting positions with more grace than a contortionist and more rigidity than an india-rubber man.  

I tried thinking of him as a Jekyll-Hyde case. I imagined the leftist Dr. Barack, having won the nomination, drinking a potion and turning into the centrist Mr. Obama for the final campaign. I had to discard this model because Obama manages to hold conflicting positions simultaneously, like one of those images under ridged plastic that changes back and forth as you tilt it.

I next thought of Obama as an amoeba [no anagram intended], incessantly changing its detailed shape to engulf its prey while maintaining a constant overall appearance. This suggested the image of an amoeba splitting in two (one to reassure the liberals while the other woos the centrists) or of Siamese twins or a two-headed man-a perfect freak for my political sideshow.

And then I saw the ads for "The Dark Knight". Of course, Barack Obama is Harvey Dent!  Imagine Two Face in the White House, with his subservient aides saying: "Mister President, Iran has just detonated an atomic bomb. Should we attack them or negotiate?" Without a word, the coin flips up and spins in mid-air....

But all this imagery iconizes only one facet of Obama. His penchant for pyrotechnic oratory calls to mind a sideshow barker or snake oil salesman. His charisma suggests a hypnotist, or perhaps the daring young man on the flying trapeze. His pompous humorlessness suggests Victorian icons that I have described elsewhere. But his most prominent trait is the incongruous combination of meager mental resources, as evidenced by his frequent gaffes and childishly naïve pronouncements, with a greatly inflated self-image of his expertise and capabilities.

I then thought of one of those huge balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. There is something like that in C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, wherein one of the damned spirits, an ugly silent dwarf, leads around a large impressive puppet that speaks for him like a ventriloquist's dummy. Or like the old man in "Men in Black", who turns out to be a robot operated by a tiny alien sitting at the control panel inside its head.

But these extravagant fantasies are needless excesses. As she occasionally does, Maureen Dowd managed to pinpoint Obama precisely:

He seems more like a child prodigy. Those enraptured with his gifts urge him on, like anxious parents, trying to pull that sustained, dazzling performance out of him that they believe he's capable of; they are willing to put up with the prodigy's occasional listlessness and crabbiness, his flights of self-regard and self-righteousness.

But Dowd did not carry her analysis far enough. As Johnson and Vaknin and others have already pointed out, the traits she hints at would alert a psychologist to the likelihood of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), whose symptoms  include

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance; exaggerates achievements and talents; expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
  • Need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Selfishness; taking advantage of others to achieve own ends
  • Lack of empathy
  • Arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behavior or attitudes.
It is important to realize that NPD is much more dangerous than simple vanity. Even closer to Dowd's precocious-child model  is Joanna Ashmun's description of NPD:

"Narcissists have normal, even superior, intellectual development while remaining emotionally and morally immature. Dealing with them can give you the sense of trying to have a reasonable discussion with a very clever six-year-old -- this is an age when normal children are grandiose and exhibitionistic, when they are very resistant to taking the blame for their own misbehavior, when they understand what the rules are (e.g., that lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited) but are still trying to wriggle out of accepting those rules for themselves."

The Dowd-Ashmum model, which seems to account for all of the Obamic traits listed above, moves us to pity and then horror. A child with NPD is bad enough -- but what if that child had the immense power of the President of the United States? As if to answer that question, Ashmun's website refers to Jerome Bixby's famous short story "It's a Good Life", in which a small boy is omnipotent, to the servile terror of everyone else in his village. A plot summary can be found in Wikipedia.  The whole story can be found here

But I warn you that, if you read it, you will be very anxious until the election is over -- and perhaps even more so in the years to come.