WASHINGTON, October 22, 2012 – As the fact-checkers are still dissecting the second presidential debate, we’ll continue with our tradition of cultural analogies to discern the opponents’ characters through archetypal behavior patterns.
Just as our subconscious mind reshapes ambiguous Rorschach blots into familiar objects, it also reshapes the perceived reality of a stressful and ambiguous confrontation into already familiar patterns of relationships and behavior. Sensing danger and stumbling for solid ground, we sometimes slip into a psychological niche that can give us comfort, but it can also become a trap - especially in a political fight.
E.g., Anthony Weiner’s political career and possibly political marriage drove him into a peculiar psychological niche, where he began to Tweet pictures of his penis to young women across America. Other cases may not be as simple, but the messages we receive are just as explicit.
The confrontation in the Ryan-Biden VP debate resulted in a metaphoric deformation of the opponents into a nerd and a bully. That archetypal scenario was predetermined by their characters: Biden sensed a nerd and his inner bully jumped out, forcing Ryan to play the role of a geeky intellectual - which he effortlessly accomplished, winning the debate for Republicans.
The first debate between Romney and Obama was archetypal on several levels.
Ideologically, it resembled a lost chapter from Atlas Shrugged, in which individualist Romney confronted collectivist Obama, scoring one for capitalism. While some extreme Ayn Rand fans may doubt that Romney could ever be Rand’s choice, let’s not forget that her great protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden - both accomplished entrepreneurs - rejected John Galt’s ideas when they first encountered them. They had to live through a series of dramatic events and experiences before they saw the light - otherwise there would be no story. Romney’s journey is a similarly intriguing story.
Psychologically, the first debate transformed Romney into an archetypal finger-wagging adult as Obama slipped into the niche of a juvenile delinquent, trying to wiggle his way out by making up stories and blaming others for his own mess. Romney quickly established dominance by pointing out that, having raised five boys, he could handle puerile tactics. This forced the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, to assume the role of a visiting social worker trying to prevent child abuse.
The Romney-Obama townhall rematch at Hofstra University felt like a second act in the same family drama, in which young Barack revolted against daddy’s authority, but was once again told to go to his room.
Having been disciplined in the first act, Obama tried to change the dynamic of their relationship, but remained stuck in the same psychological niche - perhaps, widening it somewhat with an act of an adolescent rebel.
There was no slouching like the last time. No more staring at the floor and smirking. Obama even learned to imitate Romney’s ironic smile while the big guy talked. At this rate he may even soon begin to realize that imitation of the opponent’s mannerisms is bigger than flattery - it’s the admission of his superiority.
Romney’s character of a demanding and responsible parent stayed the same. And why wouldn’t it? The kid showed no effort to clean up his mess, nor to change his lying and fingerpointing tactics. The only change was his cocky, aggressive attitude.
In part, the new attitude was enabled by another important addition to this dynamic - Candy Crowley in the role of an archetypical overprotective mommy.
The CNN anchoress initially tried to moderate objectively, but couldn’t help herself: such is the power of a mother’s love, forcing her to stand for her child, right or wrong. At least five times she rushed to Obama’s rescue. At least once she saved him from a major embarrassment, causing a media controversy over her factually incorrect support of Obama’s statement on the Benghazi terrorist attack.
At this point, Michelle Obama was caught on camera clapping her hands in violation of the debate rules, completing the picture of juvenile delinquency.
Unconditional motherly love has no bounds, but it can spoil children and make them incapable to fend for themselves in the real world. When they grow up and fail, they blame their parents first. Then they blame the society, the country, and the unfair Creation.
And as Obama continues to receive “incomplete grades,” the guilty party is always someone or something else: corporations and bank CEOs, modern technology and “messy democracy,” Fox News and all other media, the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring, as well as Bush, Reagan, Congress, the GOP, and the entire city of Washington.
Years of pampering by the media who acted as an adoring mother in the absence of a father figure have consequences. The unraveling of the Obama campaign and his weak performance opposite an authoritative Romney are just some of them. Hence the psychological niche of a failing adolescent.
No one was there to teach Obama the simple facts of life: pretending that the mess never happened doesn’t make it disappear, nor does it help others to see him as a grownup at a presidential debate.
Trying to measure up to the adults, Obama even went so far as to declare his support for the free market and capitalism. However, his most commonly repeated words that night - “control” and “fair share” - told a different story.
Contradictions don’t count if one is playing a childish game of make believe with no rules - which, in a way, can be applied to his entire term as president.
His class warfare arguments didn’t work either; schoolyard wisecracks never sound as cool when repeated in the parents’ living room. On top of it, his explanation that the gas prices under Bush were lower because the economy was bad, confirmed that he still has the economic views and the mindset of a twelve-year-old.
As if desperate to prove he knows what the adults want from him, Obama almost verbatim repeated Sarah Palin’s “drill baby, drill” - but then he also complained about Big Oil writing the country’s energy policies. In doing so, he conveniently skipped the part where Big Government provided the pen, ink, writing paper, and the rubber stamp.
No one condones cronyism, but it takes an adult to realize that the only way to prevent collusion is to limit the government powers, not to expand them. This may be hard to fathom unless one is mature enough to step outside of the nanny-state comfort zone. Alas, Obama is not the one to do that.
Perhaps, the closest Obama came to being mature was when he admitted two obvious facts: yes, the economy is in bad shape; and no, not everything is George Bush’s fault. Then he turned around and blamed all his problems on the previous twenty years. In a snap, he was back in the doorway to his junior bedroom, like a teenager hoping that if he blocks the view, no one will notice the mess inside.
With all the electronic toys, computers, and gadgets cluttering his room, he probably wishes his presidency also had an “undo” option - or, at least, a “backspace” key. But even the oversized “reset” button, which Hillary swore would work like a charm, turned out to be a plastic dud, and is now collecting dust in the corner next to Sandra Fluke’s special-edition wire hanger and the mainstream media’s “Men in Black” flashy thingy that failed to erase anyone’s memory of the last four years.
Obama may have been pushed into this psychological niche by Romney, but it is his niche and no one else’s - shaped by his cultural background, upbringing, temperament, and social environment.
Like a snapshot Tweeted to a stranger, it shows us more than most of us care to know.
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