November 16, 2007

Obama More Or Less


Obama: John F. Kennedy or John F. Kerry?

Okay, sorry about the Wolf Blitzer-ish, “paper or plastic,” exaggerated forced-choice question.  Having watched Obama closely in the debate last night (and since we were discussing him earlier in the week), I wanted to come back to him … but from a more psychological point of view.

If Obama can’t win, I think it might have less to do with his being black than being green.  (And I don’t mean that from an “eco” sense.)  The buzz earlier this week was about Obama’s electrifying appearance in Iowa at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner last Saturday.  That event, however, coupled with his muted debate performance last night in Las Vegas, just makes people more aware, confused and crazy over the dichotomy between the high-octane “Kennedy Obama” and the tentative and overly deferential “Kerry Obama.”

The good news is, I don’t believe Obama’s tentativeness is “diagnostic.”  That is, I think it is more a growth issue (as compared to Kerry, whose personality has significant depressive and passive/submissive features.)  Instead, I think Obama, at this stage in his career, is mostly lacking in the experience and confidence necessary to more fully assimilate his considerable passion and oratorical gifts.

Along these lines, the most interesting picture of Obama I’ve seen recently was his appearance two weeks ago in a skit on Saturday Night Live.  At a Halloween party thrown by Hillary and Bill Clinton, a character enters the room disguised as Barack Obama, and when he pulls off his mask, he is Obama.

So, knowing that humor is one of the most effective vehicles for getting beneath the surface, what is happening there?

The obvious conclusion is that the writers fixed on the idea as more of a counterpoint to the shape-shifting Hillary.  (Once unmasked, Obama declares: “I have nothing to hide.  I enjoy being myself.  I’m not going to change who I am just because it’s Halloween.”)  I think the choice of mask, however, can only work if there is something intrinsic to Obama that justifies his being disguised as himself.  In contrast to Hillary, where there are different personas to choose from, my sense is that Obama (as opposed to J.F. Kerry) does largely know who he is, but comes up short on the confidence to let it show.  Too often, then, with the demand to “step up,” Obama come off “once removed,” or as a lesser version of himself.

Personality being as complex and multi-determined as it is, however, I would say there are other, probably lesser factors at play also inhibiting the Senator.  For example, I think Obama’s tentativeness, on occasion, comes from having to keep his emotions in check.  If you watch him closely (and I think you can pick up some of this in the skit), he has a tendency to run slightly hot, and thus has to worry at times about getting self-righteous or even mad.  As part of the mix, I feel Obama is also still working through aspects of his racial identity, a process that would also make him protective in and of his own skin.

SNL video here.

(screen shot: NBC. November 4, 2007.  Via YouTube)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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