Did Obama undergo Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?


A reader has sent me a theory about why Sen. Barack Obama`s personality seems so different today than when he wrote his first autobiography in 1995. While highly speculative, his idea sounds not implausible.

Since I don`t watch television news, I`d never seen Barack Obama on video until after I read his 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Thus, I developed a rather different perspective on Obama`s personality than the multitudes whose opinion was molded by seeing him on TV. Rather than seeing him as “comfortable in his own skin” (a phrase common among those who know him from TV), his memoir showed a supremely uncomfortable 33-year-old who was “a literary artist of considerable power in plumbing his deep reservoirs of self-pity and resentment, an unfunny Evelyn Waugh. …Obama has a depressive’s fine eye for the disillusioning detail. … The book’s chief weakness is that its main character—Obama himself—is a bit of a drip, a humor-impaired Holden Caulfield whose preppie angst is fueled by racial regret. (Obama has a knack for irony, but of a strangely humorless flavor.)”

Now, Waugh was an infinitely more interesting person than the man who was Prime Minister three times during Waugh`s early career from 1925-37, yet who is barely remember today. (Can you name that Tory PM? Waugh is now mentioned about 3.5 times more on the Internet than that Prime Minister.) Waugh was a man of near genius, but I`ve never heard of anyone ever considering him as a potential Prime Minister. The idea seems ludicrous. And that`s about the same impression I took away from Obama`s first memoir — a talented and highly interesting man, but not at all what you`d look for in a President.

Lots of people who hadn`t read Obama`s autobiography were outraged by my article about his book. They`d seen him on TV, where he looked very Presidential, so his book couldn`t possibly be like I said it was.

Kevin Drum of the liberal Washington Monthly, however, plowed all the way through Obama`s first book and reported back similarly, although Drum was less sympathetical and more distrustful than I was, but we seemed to be in agreement that twelve years ago Obama hadn`t portrayed himself as the kind of emotionally stable individual you`d want in the White House. Drum wrote:

Obama routinely describes himself feeling the deepest, most painful emotions imaginable (one event is like a “fist in my stomach,” for example, and he “still burned with the memory” a full year after a minor incident in college), but these feelings seem to be all out of proportion to the actual events of his life, which are generally pretty pedestrian. Is he describing his real feelings? Is he simply making the beginning writer`s mistake of thinking that the way to convey emotion is to use lots of adjectives? Or is something else going on?…

There`s just something very peculiar about the book. I can`t put my finger entirely on what it is, but for all the overwrought language that Obama employs on page after page, there`s very little insight into what he believes and what really makes him tick. It was almost as if Obama was admitting to his moodiness and angst less as a way of letting us know who he is than as a way of guarding against having to really tell us. By the time I was done, I felt like I knew less about him than before.

But, clearly, Obama isn`t today the person portrayed in his first book. For one thing, he now has a mild sense of humor. Perhaps he never was who he claimed in 1995 to be — we now know his depiction of his Hawaiian days was quite distorted.

Or, perhaps he has changed. One possibility is that he goes through moderate hypomanic and depressive cycles. This is quite common among high achievers. The secret to winning your place in history is often to have an up cycle coincide by luck with a time when intense action is needed.

But, another possibility is that he`s done something to improve himself. A reader writes:

You should catch the Daily Show at 11. Not so much what Obama has to say, but just watching how comfortable he is in his own skin. I thought about you when Stewart showed him the headline, “Angry Obama the Pothead Is Not How They Remember Him In Hawaii”, his reaction was deep and genuine laughter, with no sign of self-consciousness or defensiveness.

From use of a throwaway use of the phrase, “push back against the habits of thought”, I think I know why “Angry Obama” seems so mellow, he`s gone through therapy (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I`d guess) and I think his shrink did the trick.

Habits of thought is a buzzword that you`ll hear from CBT and Positive Psychology terms just as (to put it in California terms) someone talking about Thetans is probably a Scientologist. …

As for “habits of thought”, here`s how the CBT folks use the term, “But Dr. Seligman believes that explanatory style can be changed. In a recent study of depressed patients he found that cognitive therapy – a technique that identifies and corrects erroneous habits of thought -changed the style of the patients from pessimistic to optimistic, and that the change persisted one year after therapy ended.”

A Google of “habits of thought” and “Obama” shows he used the expression in his second book, The Audacity of Hope:

“each successive year will make you more intimately acquainted with all of your flaws – the blind spots, the recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be environmental, but that will almost certainly worsen with time, as surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip.”

It seems to me that between book 1 and book 2, Barry had his head worked on and it took. In this interview, he comes across as a good guy.

CBT isn`t Freudian witchdoctoring. It has a good track record of helping people with moderate emotional problems get themselves out of the ruts they`re stuck in. The Wikipedia article on it says:

A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy based on modifying cognitions, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors, with the aim of influencing disturbed emotions. The general approach developed out of behavior modification, Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and has become widely used to treat neurosis psychopathology, including mood disorders and anxiety disorders. The particular therapeutic techniques vary according to the particular kind of client or issue, but commonly include keeping a diary of significant events and associated feelings, thoughts and behaviors; questioning and testing cognitions, assumptions, evaluations and beliefs that might be unhelpful and unrealistic; gradually facing activities which may have been avoided; and trying out new ways of behaving and reacting. Relaxation and distraction techniques are also commonly included. CBT is widely accepted as an evidence and empirically based, cost-effective psychotherapy for many disorders and psychological problems. It is sometimes used with groups of people as well as individuals, and the techniques are also commonly adapted for self-help manuals and, increasingly, for self-help software packages.

If Obama has been helped by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or something else, he should tell the public. His endorsement could do a lot of good by encouraging others to try it.

If he had therapy, the most likely point was in the 18 months following his defeat by Bobby Rush when he challenged the Congressman in the 2000 primary. Obama`s Harvard credentials had played well in the Hyde Park district he represented in the Illinois legislature, but more typical blacks in Rush`s South Side district found Obama stuck up and unlikable. In his latest book, in the next sentence after mentioning “habits of thought,” Obama goes on:

In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me. It`s a flaw that is endemic to modern life, I think — endemic, too, in the American character — and one that is nowhere more evident than in the field of politics. Whether politics actually encourages the trait or simply attracts those who possess it is unclear. Lyndon Johnson, who knew much about both politics and restlessness, once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father`s expectations or make up for his father`s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.

In any event, it was as a consequence of that restlessness that I decided to challenge a sitting Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat in the 2000 election cycle. It was an ill-considered race, and I lost badly — the sort of drubbing that awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you`d planned. A year and a half later, the scars of that loss sufficiently healed …

Denial, anger, bargaining, despair — I`m not sure I went through all the stages prescribed by the experts. At some point, though, I arrived at acceptance — of my limits, and, in a way, my mortality. I refocused on my work in the state senate and took satisfaction from the reforms and initiatives that my position afforded. I spent more time at home, and watched my daughters grow, and properly cherished my wife, and thought about my long-term financial obligations. I exercised, and read novels, and came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.

Sounds like Obama was doing some emotional therapy — either self-directed or with a counselor. From a Google search, it doesn`t seem like anyone has ever raised the topic of whether Obama has had therapy, but it hardly seems unlikely in someone so introspective.

We have a destructive prejudice in America against politicians admitting to getting any help for emotional problems, even though roughly half of all Presidents appear to have had one kind of mental problem or another (e.g., Lincoln and depression).

Indeed, perhaps Obama`s beautiful but disturbing first book chronicling his obsession with his father was written under the influence of some quasi-Freudian therapist who demanded that he obsess at vast length over his parents, while his more bland but reassuring second book is the outcome of a quick, practical course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or something similar. This is 100% speculation, of course, but it would help answer the basic question about why Obama`s self presentation of his personality changed so much from age 33 to age 42.

Obama goes on:

And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up with the thoroughly cockeyed idea of running for the United States Senate.

Obviously, the BS meter here is running about 9.5 on a 1 to 10 scale: Obama talks about how he had come to realize one of his flaws was “restlessness,” how he had learned to accept his limits and the satisfactions of his limited life … and then almost immediately he decides to run for the U.S. Senate! And then for the Presidency! And when he`s term limited out of the White House after eight years, he`ll convert to Catholicism and run for Pope (unless there`s an opening in the Galactic Overlord job).

But there`s nothing unique among politicians about Obama`s overweening ambition. They`re all like that. Fifteen years ago in The United States of Ambition, Alan Ehrenhalt asked about our political leaders: Who chooses these people? His answer was: They choose themselves.

And we like that. As Gen. Patton said, Americans love a winner. We pay lip service to having our heroes lead a balanced life, but we mostly just want them to win, damn the consequences. I`ve seen a million movies in which the hero is striving so hard that his wife complains that he`s missing all his son`s Little League games. So, then, there`s a montage of him playing catch with his son and cheering him on when he hits a homer in Little League, and then our hero goes back out and wins the really big prize and gets a standing ovation.

Same with Obama — he inserts a montage in his book about spending more time at home watching his daughters grow while exercising and appreciating how the earth rotates around the sun … and then he`s off on the Road to the White House! We love that kind of hypocrisy in our heroes.

So, if Obama had help getting his head screwed on right after his depressing pratfall in 2000, he shouldn`t keep it a secret. Telling us about it could help a lot of people who need help.