Why, oh why, didn't President Obama march in solidarity with world leaders in Paris on Sunday? Or at least send Joe Biden in his stead?
As Woody Allen said, "80% of success is showing up." And President Obama knows that. He told Chuck Todd last September, "Part of this job is also the theater of it." He had been chastised for playing golf immediately after his remarks to a nation shocked by the beheading of American journalist James Foley. It reminded me of what President Bush said to the press on a golf course in 2002. "We must stop the terror. I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers," he declared. Then he stepped up to the tee and instructed the reporters, "Now watch this drive."
It is important for presidents to enjoy some time off from what must be the most strenuous job in the world. But as a psychoanalyst, I think it is useful to push beyond those normal excuses for a president of the United States.
To many observers, this behavior smacks more of indifference than job fatigue. Both understand presidential "optics;" we saw it when a swashbuckling Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and when cool Obama began sporting an American flag lapel pin. World leader first; golfer second.
On Sunday, I found myself missing America's movie star president, who knew how to put on a face and hit his mark. President Reagan never forgot the importance of optics. You can see a glimmer of the great communicator in the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne, All American," in which young Reagan's old coach addresses Congress. He asserts that football builds character -- the kind of character not "hung on the wall like a diploma."
Well, golf is not football. But watching football is what Obama reportedly did instead of linking arms with other world leaders in Paris. His support for France and President Hollande is sincere and solid. And he clearly understands the importance of appearances. Security was obviously also a factor, though one that did not deter other world leaders. So what is this about?
At first glance we see arrogance in the face of suffering and pain. But on a deeper level Obama exhibits a form of denial -- an unconscious refusal to feel the anxiety that comes with facing painful internal realities. In his case it was not the reality of the shocking murders in France. Being the president of the United States requires the ability to dissociate one part of the self from other parts -- but so does being you or me. When I put on a tie to see my patients, I also disconnect from my personal worries. We all put on a "public" persona to face the day.
But Obama is too smart not to recognize what his behavior meant. Ultimately, there are just some things one is supposed to do, like show up. In my view, Obama again acted like an obstinate child who doesn't want to go somewhere just because he should. From childhood, Obama resisted being pushed by his mother. He developed contempt for what he called her naive "needlepoint virtues." He bridles at the word "should" because it evokes forgotten memories both of his fury at her and of his own provocative foot-dragging defiance that fanned the flames of her demands.
The long-standing rage from which he stays disconnected distorts his perception: simple social responsibilities, such as breaking bread with members of Congress, become forced obligations that he must automatically resist. This disconnection is not new. It has regularly led Obama to behave with selective blindness and deafness that undermines his authority. His failure to confront it -- to open his eyes and ears to his relentless fights with inner parental ghosts -- remains the tragedy of his presidency.