By Dr. David Hill - 05/06/08 05:44 PM EDT
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) believes that investigations of his questionable relationships — with dubious characters like Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko and William Ayers — is nearing an end as the public tires of persistent inquiries into the past of its newfound prince and his one-time courtiers. But Obama may face a new and more serious scrutiny, one that doesn’t look back at past outward associations, but that instead looks inward. The mind of Barack Obama is about to get a once-over.
Political psychology has always been one of the most interesting and broadly embraced genres of political science. Early political psychologists fascinated us with tales of Woodrow Wilson and his strained relationship with his father. This unresolved infantile conflict supposedly drove Wilson toward a political career in a futile and frustrating bid to gain his distant father’s approval and love. More recent studies suggest that unresolved conflicts between President George W. Bush and his father have shaped key elements of the incumbent president’s personality and policies.
The minds of other recent presidents have also been prodded and poked. Doris Kearns wrote provocative analyses of President Lyndon Johnson’s psyche, including the revelation that the Texan and former world leader once curled up in a fetal position under Kearns’s microscope. And pop psychologists have long speculated about the origins and implications of Bill Clinton’s fatal attractions to women.
Soon, psychologists will focus on Obama’s personality and potential pathologies associated with what researchers refer to as “status inconsistency.” Obama recently opened a window onto this fascinating topic when he became incensed at charges from the Clinton and McCain campaigns that he is elitist. After letting the charge linger for a few days, Obama finally had had enough and self-righteously exploded with his side of the story — that he grew up with fewer means and advantages than either of the other two presidential finalists. So we know that there is some smoldering resentment and angst in the now-yuppiefied memory of the likely Democratic nominee. Status inconsistency theory suggests that the great divide between what Barack was as a child and what he is today can distort personality.
The other obvious status-inconsistency issue for Obama is race. Is Obama black, an American of African descent, white, multiracial or what? For the politi cal psychologist, it is not important what the public thinks of this issue. Rather, the crux of the issue is Obama’s self-identity. The obvious conclusion is that pondering this issue creates some cognitive dissonance for the Illinois senator. When Obama is beating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in Southern states like North Carolina, based mainly on his success in the African-American community, shouldn’t he deeply respond, psychologically, to his blackness? But when he is punking Clinton in red states because of his charismatic appeal to young white voters, does he think of his white Kansas roots? And might that thought disturbingly remind him that his own white grandmother, according to his recent revelations, fears black men?
Another potential area of status inconsistency that could roil Obama’s mind is his representation of Illinois, a state known for serious political corruption. I believe that Obama thinks of himself as a Dudley Do-Right, an upstanding, honest guy. So the fact that some voters may assume otherwise about someone from Illinois probably haunts him.
Obama will be terribly put off by speculation about such matters of his mind, but because he is such a science advocate, he cannot dismiss it all as foolishness. Psychologists know that phenomena like status inconsistency are genuine factors in personality development that can warp an individual’s mind or behaviors. There are some huge fault lines in the underground structures of Barack Obama’s mind. Given his life story, how could there not be? The psychologists may be able to tell us whether an earthquake is coming.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.