Obama Builds on His Mojo

The President continues to discover that confronting aggression doesn't destroy his drive to be bipartisan — it strengthens it

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When President Obama took a stand last week and appointed Richard Cordray to chair the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in defiance of a Congress incapacitated by being in recess, he stirred up more than controversy — he also stirred up parts of his own internal world that had been dominated by an almost pathological need to do everything in a bipartisan way. This is the beginning of a fundamental shift in which he has begun to confront his long-standing fears of provoking the opposition.

After I suggested in my most recent column that Obama’s successful extension of the payroll tax cut right before Christmas showed he was beginning to set limits on unruly naysayers, readers wrote that I was making too much of a compromised extension that lasts only two months. But his bold appointment of Cordray shows that he is continuing to heal internal “splits” — a developmental process common to all of us that is important to our psychological growth, particularly involving how we face fear and handle aggression as adults.

To understand this we must return to early infancy when we all attempt to order chaos by splitting our internal worlds into good and bad. These splits initially help the infant organize his mind — to connect the frustration of hunger with an image of a bad mother, for example, and the satisfaction of feeding with an image of a loving mother — but they must heal for the child to mature. Ultimately he realizes that the good and bad caregivers are one and the same, and that the person he needs and loves is also the person he fears and hates. President Obama endured more than his share of splits necessary to survive childhood — most pointedly the biracial split and the two broken families he had to deal with. Both parents abandoned him at different times, making aggressive feelings toward them more intolerable since they threatened his internal need to see them as loving.

(MORE: Frank: Why Obama’s Actions Don’t Always Live Up to His Words)

Obama’s yearning to heal his own splits enabled him to become a community organizer, driving him from what could have been a lucrative practice of law to the streets of Chicago. As President he clearly favors bipartisan action, so much so that he often compromises with himself before negotiating with the opposition. Part of this profound push for healing splits was to evade his own psychic reality — an internal fear of being damaged or destroyed. The irony is that facing and testing out inner fears of aggression may lead to greater healing by developing the capacity to contain opposite feelings and therefore manage intense internal conflicts. Facing internal psychological facts — that his parents were destructive and not simply loving — helps him recognize external facts as well, that his attempts to reason with opponents about the appointment of Cordray were also a defense against his fear of facing the destructiveness of Republicans like Mitch McConnell. With that realization, Obama can express his aggression more directly at people he actually knows — beyond Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. He first said, “We were pretty patient. I mean, we kept on saying to Mitch McConnell and the other folks, let’s go ahead and confirm him.”  Later on, he followed with, “We know what would happen if Republicans in Congress were allowed to keep holding Richard’s nomination hostage. More of our loved ones would be tricked into making bad financial decisions … We cannot allow people to be taken advantage of.”

Dilemmas like making recess appointments in the face of hatred are always risky, let alone scary: just look at the belligerent reactions of many Republicans and the US Chamber of Commerce. But Obama is learning that confrontation with destructive forces need not destroy his drive to be bipartisan; it strengthens it. After all, he already knows full well that Republicans love America too. Now he sees how destructive they can also be. As he said clearly, “We shouldn’t be weakening oversight. We shouldn’t be weakening accountability. We should be strengthening it — especially when it comes to looking out for families like yours.”