Seduced Again, Abandoned Again

The psychoanalytic take on President Obama's appearance on The Tonight Show

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Paul Drinkwater / NBC

President Barack Obama, on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, October 25, 2011

Last week, President Obama’s appearance on the The Tonight Show With Jay Leno reminded supporters why they were so drawn to our 44th president in the first place. First, he dutifully fit himself into the role as special guest in a self-mocking introductory skit before sitting down at the host’s right hand to ply the natural seductiveness that is instantly familiar to his supporters — a seductiveness made second nature from mythic tales about his legendary father.

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He reminded the audience that the nation got a far better return on a much more modest investment in Muammar Gaddafi’s elimination than in the war that was launched to take out Saddam Hussein. The return of Iraqi troops translated into the sales pitch “having them home for the holidays for good is going to be a very big deal.” The recent flexing of presidential muscle via executive order was rightly presented as a way around the “Republicans in Congress [who] refuse to act,” complete with a slogan-ready condemnation of their “putting party ahead of country or putting the next election ahead of the next generation.”

It’s heartening to see Obama claiming his accomplishments and citing facts to cut through the partisan noise of the campaign season. He turned on the instantly recognizable charm, smile, and occasionally self-deprecating humor in a once-familiar manner that we now rarely see. But if history is a reliable guide, some viewers will ultimately wake up feeling abandoned in the wake of that seduction, just as many of his followers now feel.

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Some of this is simple politics, the result of his making promises that no one could have kept. Going further, people who have been abandoned often reverse the situation, feeling the need to seduce and then subsequently abandon. Obama seems compelled to seduce and abandon in the same way that his father seduced and abandoned his mother and ultimately him — first by leaving the family, then by turning out not to be the heroic figure that he was made out to be in family legend. Obama vowed, however, never to be the kind of father to his children that his father was to him. But that doesn’t mean that his father’s behavior still doesn’t exert a negative influence on him.

What further complicates the picture is that his mother also effectively abandoned him — first sending him to live with his grandparents so she could remain in Indonesia, then later so she could return to Indonesia to pursue her research. While they were together, she was intensely involved in his life and schoolwork, but was willing to separate from her son for long periods in between. Obama’s unresolved anger towards his abandoning father offers an additional motivation for his behavior: driven to get inside his father’s mind to answer questions about why he left his family, Obama now needs to express that anger by displacing it onto his followers and repeatedly disappointing them — since he’d never do that to his own children.

Perhaps he’ll break this political pattern, especially now that he is back in the role of campaigning. But we should consider ourselves forewarned that he’s playing out an unconscious dynamic that may be too powerful to shake.