Sigmund Freud would have loved Maureen Dowd's column this past Wednesday.
After a bold opening commanding the president of the United States to "stop whining," Dowd launches into several paragraphs conceding that Barack Obama actually has to deal with "some really evil guys and some really nutty pols" and that "the problems roiling the world now are brutally hard." But then she turns to her main point, which is to lambaste the president for failing to make her socks roll up and down.
And how might he pull that off?
By learning to "think bigger." And "hit home runs." You know, like Babe Ruth. Because "a singles hitter doesn't scare anybody." And scaring people, or at least bad guys, is what presidents need to do.
Addressing Obama directly, Dowd issues the core of her indictment: "It doesn't feel like you're in command of your world."
And Maureen Dowd wants above all to feel that someone is in command.
I realize that any time a man deploys Freudian categories to analyze a woman's actions and ideas he runs the risk of looking sexist. So let me be perfectly clear: Dowd is hardly the only liberal with daddy issues — and plenty of those liberals are men.
Shortly after Dowd's column appeared on The New York Times website, for example, Ron Fournier tweeted that he wished he'd written it. I bet Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, author of a late-March paean to presidential omnipotence, felt the same way. And of course who could forget David Brooks' recent mediation on Obama's "manhood"? (Brooks may not call himself a liberal, but he has been an Obama admirer for years, and he's swooned at unapologetic displays of gratuitous manliness for much longer than that.)
We expect this kind of thing from conservatives, whose love of in-your-face leadership fits quite well with their fetish for toughness in all things and their ready willingness to inflict suffering on the poor and weak (all for their own good, of course).
But how to explain the center-left's love of presidential scare tactics, which sits uneasily with liberalism's otherwise bleeding heart?
That's where Freud comes in.
The founder of psychoanalysis proposed that when a young child is frightened, he looks to his father for protection. Not only is this father figure genuinely much stronger than the defenseless child, but his strength is also so much greater that the child easily imagines him to possess magical powers that can protect even against imaginary dangers and threats.
In Freud's view, as the child grows, he will often look for an even stronger father figure to protect him against supernatural and existential fears that confront him as a teenager and adult, such as bad luck, accidents, injury, illness, and death. This, for Freud, is where we get our ideas of God — the big daddy in the sky.
Regular readers know that I'm skeptical of many atheistic accounts of religion. But Freud's theory touches on something quite real in our politics. Liberals like Dowd don't literally look for presidents to be God. But they do look for them to be gods. Or at least superheroes. Just as their fathers were — or rather, as they imagined their fathers to be.
How else to explain the patently absurd expectations that Dowd brings to her analysis of Obama's presidency? Sure he's made missteps — and yes, he should probably scrap the petulant defensiveness that he too often adopts when responding to critics at press conferences. But Dowd doesn't want smarter or defter policies, and she's not offering PR advice. She wants miracles. And miracles just happen, defying explanation.
Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at the analogy Dowd draws at the end of her column as she lays out what she would like to see from the president. She compares Obama unfavorably to Adam Silver, the "nerdy technocrat who, in his first big encounter with a crazed tyrant, managed to make the job of NBA commissioner seem much more powerful than that of president of the United States."
How did Silver accomplish this feat? By standing up "for what was right" in banning from the NBA for life the blatantly racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
As opposed to Barack Obama, who…what exactly? Who has failed to stand up to crazed tyrants like Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin by banning them for life from the global association of nations of which he serves as the commissioner?
Unlike in Dowd's comic book universe, American presidents in the real world don't preside over the world with anything close to the level of supremacy she imagines. They don't get to issue edicts and ultimatums — unless, of course, they're prepared to back them up with copious quantities of blood and treasure. They're not handed magic wands with their first national security briefing, and time spent in the Oval Office doesn't automatically confer the capacity to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Maureen Dowd knows this. Yet her all-too-common longing to be led by a president with god-like powers leads her to write as if she doesn't.
Somewhere Freud is smiling.
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