Too Cool to Care: Could Obama's Privileged and Pot-filled Adolescence Explain his Presidential Lassitude?

Barack Obama stands apart from other modern American Presidents in many ways.  In addition to the obvious bi-racial background, he is the only President to win the Nobel Peace Prize in his first term, and the only one ever designated Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year.  Beyond such specific achievements is his ineffable appeal, the widespread view that he is the coolest President ever.  This supernal coolness is not new.  In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, the President wrote that in his teenage years “I tried my best to be cool at all times” (p. 82).  However, leaving aside the contradiction inherent in trying to be cool, it is possible that Barack Obama’s teenage experiences may have left him psychologically, and perhaps even neurologically, incapable of performing fundamental tasks of his current position.

Much of the appeal of coolness is its very elusiveness, but one definition is “cool means moving through the world at once effortlessly and effectively.”   It is very zen (another kind of cool), for cool people to “get beyond striving [to] … a state where they’re not thinking, they’re not exerting effort, they’re not experiencing any doubts, and yet everything works out perfectly.”  Yet everything is not working out perfectly for our President.  And now even his supporters are confronting the realization that, while the President is meeting the criterion of not making much effort, the effectiveness part is not following. 

Obama losing the left

National Journal reporter Ron Fournier writes that “virtually every post critical of Obama has originated from conversations with Democrats. [Democrat] members of Congress, consultants, pollsters, lobbyists, and executives at think tanks … believe that his presidency has been damaged by his shortcomings as a leader; his inattention to details of governing; his disengagement from the political process and from the public; his unwillingness to learn on the job; and his failure to surround himself with top-shelf advisers who are willing to challenge their boss as well as their own preconceived notions.”  Veteran journalist Bob Woodward also reports being told by numerous Democrats of President’s Obama’s disengagement from many major issues.  In the last few days the New York Times has reported even Harry Reid complaining how disengaged the President seemed.  This is hardly news, since congressional Democrats have been complaining of the President’s failure to work with them since before his election in 2008. 

As noted by Fournier, the matter goes beyond the President’s unwillingness or inability to work with members of Congress from his own party (let alone the GOP), what the Times reports Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill describing as being like “eating spinach” for the President. A Washington Post political reporter described Obama as a “political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.”   The Economist reports that “he seems bored by the daily tasks of governing and reluctant to question those who work for him.”  Left-wing New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes that the President is “frittering away precious time on the links,” that his “main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected,” and who, instead of leading the country, is sinking “into some petulant expression of his aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomaniacs.”  Writing in the New Republic, Michael Kazin calls Obama’s problem “political ADD” where “he typically delivers a big speech” on a subject “and then essentially stops talking about it. … No topic seems to hold his interest very long, and so he bounces around without ever persuading the American public.”  And the American public seems to have noticed.  Even Mother Jones reports a Fox News poll showing large numbers of the public, including Democrats and blacks, think that President Obama “is bored with the whole presidenting thing.”   

Unfocused, unable to follow through on long-range tasks, difficulty in building relationships with important equals, easily bored by anything not centered on himself, aloof, disengaged – how does this fit with someone as attractive and appealing, as cool as Barack Obama?  His supporters are baffled.  However, the old expression that “the child is father to the man” offers two possible explanations, explanations which are particularly powerful for a man who had no father other than himself in his most formative teenage years.  These explanations are his privileged personal psychological environment in his teenage years, and his prodigious marijuana consumption.

The Choom Gang Legacy

President Obama has never denied his drug use in his teenage and young adult years.  In Dreams From My Father, he writes of how he reached a point where “I had learned not to care. … Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. … Junkie. Pothead.  That’s where I’d been headed.”  (p. 93).  For his 2012 biography of Obama, David Maraniss went to Hawaii and interviewed many of Obama’s high school friends.  He reports that Obama’s social group was centered around marijuana.  They called themselves the Choom Gang after a slang term for pot.  And they were very serious about it.  One inhaled deeply and held the smoke in as long as possible, and young Barry Soetoro (as he was known then) even pioneered the inhalation of leftover smoke that had gathered on the ceiling of the VW bus they called the Choomwagon (pp. 293-294). 

Because Obama has admitted his youthful drug use and criticizes it now, the media has always given him a pass on the matter.  However, biology does not follow press releases.   Modern research has shown that the human brain undergoes extensive and critical development during the teenage years through the early 20s.  Neurons are massively pared and rearranged.  The process manifests in well-known behavioral patterns, which is why twelve year-olds can often seem more rational than sixteen year-olds. 

Researchers have also found that the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, can seriously interfere with this neural development.  A 2013 survey of 55 research studies on the psychological and neurological impact of marijuana use on teenagers concluded that “regular marijuana use during adolescence may lead to structural changes … associated with poorer cognitive functioning, especially … executive functioning, emotional control, and learning and memory.”  One long-term study of a thousand New Zealanders who used marijuana during adolescence found that these effects persisted into adulthood decades later.

The most interesting of these harms is to “executive functioning.”  This is a related set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”  It is the ability to focus and organize one’s efforts to pursue one or multiple difficult long-term goals.  For example, say your goal requires that you establish a relationship and negotiate with powerful, independent, and even vain and unlikeable, persons.  Even the most energetic back-slapping glad hander will tell you that this is hard work.  Executive functioning is the mental processes that enable you to focus on and perform such tasks over time which are needed to realize a long-range goal. 

Now the Obamaphile will reply at this point that, while it is true that Barack Obama has perhaps fallen short on schmoozing Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid (and let’s not even mention John Boehner or Mitch McConnell), he is after all President of the United States, and you and I are not.  However, no one is contending that heavy pot use as a teenager inevitably turns you into a blithering idiot.  It can impair critical abilities.  Let’s look at areas where there is broad agreement as to the President’s strengths.  He is a superb and canny campaigner and, by all accounts, a fine father.  In both cases there is immediate emotional gratification, whether the adulation of the crowd or the relationship with adorable and adoring daughters.  But, once you get beyond areas where gratification is near at hand, Barack Obama starts to flag, as noted by the many observers quoted above and numerous others.

On a less scientific basis, our President displays some other informal characteristics of the classic pothead.  He is certainly amiable.  And he clearly likes to think Deep Thoughts about Great Things (as satirized at the end of this classic scene).   The New York Times has reported on the President’s strong preference for dinner parties with European intellectuals over spending time with citizens and politicians discussing the nitty-gritty of governing.

Of course, this is all only suggestive, a question of what does two plus two equal?  A clinician would not want to make a definitive diagnosis without a neurological work-up and more firsthand information on the quantity and potency of the President’s pot.  All marijuana researchers would like to see more long-term longitudinal studies, which the states of Washington and Colorado are now unintentionally commencing. 

An indulged child

However, there is another aspect of the President’s teenage years that may also bear on his deficiencies as Chief Executive, a psychological rather than a neurological question.  This is his privileged youth.  No one will argue that being abandoned by your father when you are two, then being dragged off to a Third World nation by your wandering mother, and finally having to spend your teenage years with your grandparents is an idyllic upper-crust life.  However, let us look at Barack Obama’s life from a child’s perspective.  At the time he became self-aware in Jakarta he lived in a home with servants and an indulgent upwardly mobile stepfather.  When he returned to Hawaii, while his grandparents certainly did not live in a mansion, he lived quite comfortably with his grandmother who, despite the sexism of the time and the lack of a college degree, rose to become a vice president of a major local bank.  And then there was the Punahou School.  The most prestigious secondary school in Hawaii, it has long educated the children of the islands’ elites.  Barry Soetero’s Choom Gang buddies were the sons of Hawaii’s professional, political and business leadership.

More influential even than this is what is perhaps the ultimate in privilege from the teenager’s point of view.  Throughout his life, Barack Obama never really had any adult telling him what to do.  In Dreams From My Father he writes that he “arrived at an unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live with them and they’d leave me alone so long as I kept my troubles out of sight.” (p. 75).  He only heard from his real father in sporadic letters, and his mother was in Indonesia.  When, on a rare visit from Indonesia, his mother scolded him for his falling grades and lack of college plans, he walked out on her (Dreams, p. 96).  What silver spoon existence can match the ego gratification of a total absence of adult direction or demands, the license to do whatever you want?  How cool is that?  Cool, but not very effective at learning focus or discipline. Also not very effective at learning to care for others as opposed to oneself, a learning for which active parental influence is essential.

In the end though, as the lady said, what difference, at this point, does it make?  President Obama will be out of office in a couple of years.  Well, it could make a difference in several ways.

The reckoning

First, two more years of unfocused, undisciplined and disorganized management can do a lot of damage when the manager is the POTUS.  President Obama has shown that he can focus on tasks that he wants to focus on, like campaigning and golfing.  Perhaps some public discussion of his possible psychological and THC-induced neurological disabilities will motivate him to focus more on the demands of his office.

Second, the debate over marijuana legalization has leapt to the fore recently.  While there may be good policy reasons to decriminalize cannabis, let us not accept the false claim that the weed is benign and harmless.  Even the New York Times’ campaign for marijuana legalization has included warnings about its risks to teenagers and calls for banning sales to those under 21.  Pointing to Barack Obama’s feckless presidency may be a powerful illustration of the risks of heavy youthful pot use.

Third, while no one would expect Barack Obama to admit the validity of the arguments above, conversation on such topics might create an environment that would make it easier for him to move more rapidly into retirement.  In the parliamentary systems of the western European social democracies the President so much admires, it is customary for a party leader to resign after a significant electoral defeat.  If, as expected, Republicans take control of the Senate and maintain control of the House after November’s elections, what would remain of the appeal of the presidency?  Faced with a hostile Congress and a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign bent on pulling the Democratic Party away from him, the last two years of his Presidency would offer nothing but drudgery.  Why not take the historic opportunity to hit the links and the lucrative book and speaking circuit earlier than scheduled? 

And for those unenthusiastic about a Biden presidency, I would argue that the premises, such as they are, of this administration may be better promoted, and challenged, when presented in a brusque Bidenesque style than in the callow but still remaining smoke of Obamaesque cool, even if we are all realizing that that is a cool too cool to care.    

James W. Lucas is an attorney, entrepreneur and the author of Are We The People? Using Amendment to Take Back Our Constitution from Big Government, Big Business and the Supreme Court.  His next book will be an agenda for political transformation entitled Spectopia: How We Can Defeat Them and Build a Great New America through Democracy, Diversity, Freedom and Tolerance.