Why Obama Can’t Embrace Occupy Wall Street

A lifetime of ambivalence converges on one historical moment

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Pete Souza / The White House

President Barack Obama makes phone calls to U.S. military personnel on Thanksgiving.

President Obama’s Thanksgiving day address sounded several familiar themes to which he returns with a regularity that approaches the compulsive: the “sense of mutual responsibility the idea that I am my brother’s keeper; that I am my sister’s keeper — [that] has always been a part of what makes our country special,” as well as the notion that “Americans [draw] strength from each other,” united in “faith that tomorrow would be better than today,” and the role of forward-thinking citizens “who helped make this country what it is” by persevering in the face of “impossible odds,” and whom it is now “our turn” to emulate. The upshot: we must “each of us do our part” to solve the problems we face, thereby embracing “that most American of blessings, the chance to determine our own destiny.”

So we are compelled to ask why he is so conspicuously quiet on Occupy Wall Street, a movement that embodies so many of the virtues he celebrated last week — when his reticence on the issue grew even more noticeable after a protester handed him a note charging that his “silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable.”

(PHOTOS: Occupy Wall Street Protesters Struggle to Keep Their Camps Open)

No doubt most of the OWS protesters voted for Obama in 2008, but now they lament his lack of support — even as he celebrates the impulses that drive them.

By first inspiring and then abandoning the OWS supporters, Obama is replaying a dynamic that describes his mother’s effect on him. The cycle of inspiration and abandonment fueled his unconscious resentment towards her, which is likely heightened further by the note-writer’s willingness to confront Obama far more directly than he was ever able to do with his mother. Now he is faced with an OWS reminiscent of his own mother — passionately committed to social justice but exceedingly disorganized at the same time, without a clear idea of how they intend to achieve their goals. This means trouble to Obama, who prefers clarity above all else.

(MORE: The Story of Barack Obama’s Mother)

To side with OWS would require Obama to choose passion and chaos over reason — something against which he’s struggled his whole life. Even more threatening, any support of OWS would acknowledge that he has failed to protect the downtrodden from free-range bankers and hedge fund operators — just as his mother failed to protect him from the chaos of his volatile childhood.

It’s easy to imagine that the young and idealistic Stanley Ann Dunham would be participating in OWS today if she were alive. And her grown son is now the kind of authority figure against whom she once railed — someone who is reluctant to use his authority, unless chastised for not doing his job properly as he was in last week’s note.

Obama has repeatedly written and spoken about how his political career has been driven by his beloved mother’s liberal values — including the sentiments he honored in his Thanksgiving remarks. But underneath that celebration is a level of unconscious contempt towards his mother’s liberal mindset that emerges in a close reading of Dreams from My Father, which includes his dismissing her “needlepoint virtues” as reliant on “a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny.” Now he espouses his own needlepoint-ready virtues, even as he turns his back on a movement that is trying to live by them.

(MORE: Justin Frank: Seduced Again, Abandoned Again)

Thanksgiving is a time that reminds many of us how deeply ambivalent children can be towards their parents. On some level, Obama likely embraces much of what the OWS protesters are trying to do. Unfortunately for them, his ability to declare his support is inhibited by an ambivalence that is stronger than most but that he doesn’t consciously recognize. They can only hope that he is more effective at resolving that conflict than many sons ever manage to achieve with their mothers.