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November 16, 2007

Obama More Or Less


Obama: John F. Kennedy or John F. Kerry?

Okay, sorry about the Wolf Blitzer-ish, “paper or plastic,” exaggerated forced-choice question.  Having watched Obama closely in the debate last night (and since we were discussing him earlier in the week), I wanted to come back to him … but from a more psychological point of view.

If Obama can’t win, I think it might have less to do with his being black than being green.  (And I don’t mean that from an “eco” sense.)  The buzz earlier this week was about Obama’s electrifying appearance in Iowa at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner last Saturday.  That event, however, coupled with his muted debate performance last night in Las Vegas, just makes people more aware, confused and crazy over the dichotomy between the high-octane “Kennedy Obama” and the tentative and overly deferential “Kerry Obama.”

The good news is, I don’t believe Obama’s tentativeness is “diagnostic.”  That is, I think it is more a growth issue (as compared to Kerry, whose personality has significant depressive and passive/submissive features.)  Instead, I think Obama, at this stage in his career, is mostly lacking in the experience and confidence necessary to more fully assimilate his considerable passion and oratorical gifts.

Along these lines, the most interesting picture of Obama I’ve seen recently was his appearance two weeks ago in a skit on Saturday Night Live.  At a Halloween party thrown by Hillary and Bill Clinton, a character enters the room disguised as Barack Obama, and when he pulls off his mask, he is Obama.

So, knowing that humor is one of the most effective vehicles for getting beneath the surface, what is happening there?

The obvious conclusion is that the writers fixed on the idea as more of a counterpoint to the shape-shifting Hillary.  (Once unmasked, Obama declares: “I have nothing to hide.  I enjoy being myself.  I’m not going to change who I am just because it’s Halloween.”)  I think the choice of mask, however, can only work if there is something intrinsic to Obama that justifies his being disguised as himself.  In contrast to Hillary, where there are different personas to choose from, my sense is that Obama (as opposed to J.F. Kerry) does largely know who he is, but comes up short on the confidence to let it show.  Too often, then, with the demand to “step up,” Obama come off “once removed,” or as a lesser version of himself.

Personality being as complex and multi-determined as it is, however, I would say there are other, probably lesser factors at play also inhibiting the Senator.  For example, I think Obama’s tentativeness, on occasion, comes from having to keep his emotions in check.  If you watch him closely (and I think you can pick up some of this in the skit), he has a tendency to run slightly hot, and thus has to worry at times about getting self-righteous or even mad.  As part of the mix, I feel Obama is also still working through aspects of his racial identity, a process that would also make him protective in and of his own skin.

SNL video here.

(screen shot: NBC. November 4, 2007.  Via YouTube)

  • tina

    Slate just ran an article entitled “How Obama Broke the Law”.
    How did the criminal Obama breach the law? By not covering his heart during the National Anthem, according to Slate.
    It’s not true, by the way. Refusal to raise the hand during the Pledge or the Anthem was decriminalized during the 1970s.
    But we wouldn’t expect the swiftboating to stop based on some minor detail like the facts, would we?

  • Books Alive

    The short Q&A format of televised debates crimps Obama, who makes marvelous speeches when he has ample time to demonstrate a range of ideas, emotions and calls to action.
    Having watched the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner presentations from John Edwards on, I worried that Obama would make a good showing. But I was happily proved wrong on that.
    Regarding the SNL skit, Obama’s post-mask remarks were gracious to “Hillary,” and a foil to “Bill.” As BAG notes, he is having to balance conflicting feelings as to when to agree with and when to confront Bill and Hillary over issues where they differ, and how to bring it off with the least damage to his own campaign.

  • marc sobel

    I think you are accepting the meme that Hillary Clinton is a cold calculating bitch who has no “real” responses only chess move like responses. I think the reality is more subtle. First of all it is a right wing characterization that has been co opted by hostile Democrats and the general punditry. Secondly, after the way she has been treated by the press for the last 20 years, she has to naturally be cautious. Thirdly, one defense open to women in our society is to not confront directly but to either not engage or disagree politely (if you violate that you back into castrating bitch territory). I think that in fact if you speak to people who have had direct contact with her or have heard her speak you will get a different judgment. TV, the artificial interview show and news clips too often give the wrong impression or rather a tailored one.
    I remember the same thing with Bill Clinton, there was a disconnect between the person reported and described on TV and the person when he got a chance to speak. The opposite by the way of Bush, who these days can’t speak two sentences without begging the question of what kind of medications he is on.

  • wiggins

    I have to agree with marc sobel.

  • martin

    O. J. or Obama? You, the people decide./ Entre stage, centre-right. Shadowed, cloaky figure/ Et tu Condee?

  • MonsieurGonzo

    this is a crappy image (but an interesting subject :)
    The Psychology of Leadership : “…the ability or even necessity to Inspire:
    A Leader, one who can instill passion and direction to an individual or group of individuals, will be using Psychology to affect that group either consciously or unconsciously :
    Those who seem to be “Natural Leaders” and effectively inspire groups without really knowing the strategies or tactics used are considered Charismatic Leaders.
    The Conscious Leader on the other hand applies a variety of psychological tactics that affect the “reactions” of a group to the environment they exist in.
    …begs the question, is Obama a charismatic or a fully conscious = self-aware director?
    the distinction may not be important, save for how the candidate(s) are branded, and by whom. Ms. Clinton is not “charismatic”, so she must be a “calculating” leader. given an image or text FRAME, this could be a negative or positive attribute, yes? i mean, is she DECISIVE, or CONTROLLING? Her dilemma is being branded for being a conscious, purposeful leader.
    OTOH, Mr. Obama is considered by most to be a “charismatic”… inspiring, yes ~ but hey, not grounded in the FRAME of RealPolitik!
    imho, what Americans want is a good liar {grin} ie., a leader who may have, perhaps even a “hidden agenda”… but under all the hubris necessary to sell herself lies a benevolent purpose, after all.
    …the liar/leader FDR comes to mind ;-)

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