Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Psychological Tapestry

Published in Commentary Magazine on June 11, 2014



We’re facing a humanitarian crisis on our southern border, caused in very large part by the president’s June 2012 order halting the deportation of young illegal immigrants. (The number of children who have surged across the border in the last eight months is ten times what it was in 2012.) And what is the president’s response? “Barack Obama goes after Republicans on immigration,” according to a Politico headline. Over at hotair.com Noah Rothman does a nice job documenting the president’s blame shifting. And an exasperated House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday, “He’s been president for five-and-a-half years. When’s he going to take responsibility for something?”

It looks very much like the answer is never. And the reason may well lie in Mr. Obama’s psychological makeup. Let me explain what I mean.

Early on with Mr. Obama, I assumed his chronic finger pointing was simply cynical. It may be that in part, but it seems to me to be more than that. It’s one thread in a larger psychological tapestry.

The president is a man who has a grandiose sense of himself, a very strong sense of entitlement, and is, even for a politician, unusually prickly and self-pitying. He is blind to the damage he’s doing and the failures he’s amassed. His self-conception–pragmatic, empirical, non-ideological, self-reflective, willing to listen to and work with others, intellectually honest, competent at governing–is at odds with reality. Mr. Obama is constantly projecting his own weaknesses onto his political opponents. There are never any honest differences with Obama; he is always impugning the motives of his critics–they put “party ahead of country”–while presenting his own motives as being as pure as the new-driven snow. And whatever goes wrong on his watch is always the result of someone or something else. There’s a kind of impressive consistency to Obama’s blame game. It never rests, and it applies to every conceivable circumstance.

Mr. Obama also has the habit of increasing his mockery of his political opponents as his own ineptness is exposed. Which explains why so often these days Obama’s public remarks are the equivalent of playground taunts. Ridicule and sarcasm are vehicles for Obama to vent his frustrations and externalize his failures. (It’s cheaper than weekly therapy sessions.)

What all these things in combination result in is an inability to adjust to circumstances and self-correct. There’s a marked rigidity, a lack of cognitive flexibility, in Mr. Obama. He has to be right, he is always right, and so (for example) the president can declare earlier this year–with a straight face–that the Affordable Care Act is “is working the way it should.”

Some of Obama’s personality traits and emotional characteristics were fairly obvious early on; others have emerged front and center during the course of his presidency. In some ways, the most comparable modern president to Obama is Richard Nixon. That is to say, Nixon’s presidency was powerfully defined by, and ultimately undone by, Nixon’s psychological flaws, including his paranoia and insecurities.

Mr. Obama’s personality profile is quite different, and in some important respects healthier, than was Nixon’s. But not in every respect. Mr. Nixon, for example, was less prone to create and live in a make believe world than Mr. Obama. (It’s impossible to imagine Nixon believing, as Obama does, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lightning-like seizure of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine, combined with Russia’s major new presence in the Middle East, were evidence of Putin acting “out of weakness, not out of strength.”) And vanity, which helps explain Obama’s adamantine approach, was not nearly as much of an issue for Nixon.

Every presidency ends differently, and Obama’s will not end like Nixon’s did. But it will not end well. And as happened with Nixon, people will look back at the Obama presidency and see just how much Mr. Obama’s psychological landscape–how he sees himself and how he sees the world–contributed to his undoing.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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