Will Obama’s Continued Silence Hurt Him Politically?

Why the President risks shirking his leadership responsibilities by not responding to Republican attacks

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Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

President Obama’s used to it, to going silent on us that is. Conventional political wisdom suggests that he just sit back and let the Republicans continue down the path of self-destruction. It’s a scene depicted in a New Yorker front-cover cartoon, in which the President is watching the GOP candidates bloody each other up on-screen. But Obama’s lips aren’t just sealed because of campaign strategy.

Obama also stays quiet because he’s always been a man who observes others fighting but often says nothing. He was relatively speechless at the beginning of the battle between the Wisconsin governor and the state employees. He refrained from jumping in defense of unions. He also let weeks go by before confronting BP for their oil spill in the Gulf.

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From a psychoanalytical perspective, Obama’s silence as Republicans duke it out is no real surprise. As a child he already had decided not to confide in his mother, something he describes in a memorable scene in Dreams from My Father, when he mutes his extreme distress over magazine photos of black men trying to lighten their skin. He was horrified that things could be so bad that men would do such a thing to themselves; though he thought of telling his mother and the black man for whom she worked about it, instead he put the magazine back on the shelf and pasted a smile on his sealed lips.

Of course his role as the incumbent does elevate him above the fray. And it is also true that silence can be powerful as well — in the long run. Just think about the honors Hollywood is about to heap on the silent film The Artist. The main character was honorable and faithful to his role as a silent-movie matinee idol — but his insistence on silence cost him his career as he watched crowds flock to the talkies. What are the costs the rest of us pay for Obama’s silence? What are the costs to his immediate effectiveness as President, even though history may load him with honors sometime in the distant future?

We’re reminded daily of the consequences of Obama’s not speaking up when Republicans warned of “death panels” as an outcome of the health care reform bill that the party is now so eager to repeal. Of course, speaking out isn’t always enough, as we saw when a gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who had pointedly warned about the dangers of violent language in politics. But the President runs the risk of shirking his own leadership responsibilities by staying quiet during the Republicans’ escalating attempts to spread distortions about him and his policies.

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For the Republicans, there are also risks in not speaking up if it means staying silent and in effect condoning the racist overtones and mob mentality in some GOP debate audiences. When a gay veteran’s support for the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal elicited boos from the audience, for example, the candidates stood quietly by. Yet, helping people in large groups control their impulsively destructive behavior is a key task of being a leader.

This weekend, Obama surrogates rushed to defend the president’s Christian values after Republican candidate Rick Santorum suggested that Obama’s agenda was “based on some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” But that didn’t stop the Republicans from stoking the issue in what was perhaps an unconscious attempt to perpetuate Santorum’s statement by accidentally linking questions about Obama’s Christianity and his fealty to “radical environmentalists.” The day after Santorum’s remarks on Face the Nation about the President’s religious commitments, his press aide Alice Stewart cited Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” on MSNBC, before correcting herself as intending to say “radical environmentalist policies.” Stewart insisted that the reference to Islam slipped in by mistake, but even if that’s true, the incident was still more fodder for the undercurrent of hatred that fuels the right’s attacks on Obama.

Her “slip” suggests that the opposition is dominated by its own unconscious. And as anyone open to a psychoanalytical perspective knows well, the unconscious is far too powerful a force to try to fight with silence.

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