Barack Obama and the Cycle of American Liberalism

Article excerpt

Barack Obama occasionally sounds like Sigmund Freud. The father of psychoanalysis writes: "The essence of success was to have got further than one's father, and as though to excel one's father was still something forbidden" (Freud, 1936, SE 22, p. 247). Obama's variation on this theme is: "Every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or to make up for his father's mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else" (Obama, 2006, p. 3).

The paradoxes of Barack's personal and political life have a connection to ambivalence towards paternal authority. But not only Obama: generational revolt characterizes the modernist impulse from Luther's challenging the integrity of the Church fathers through Locke's treatise against patriarchy, to entrepreneurial capitalist's championing of the market over regulation, to the battle of science for empiricism over revelation or rationalism. Individual Oedipal issues become entwined with various movements in the modern period. The American liberal tradition from the Revolution to the present exhibits the contradictions of those who both adhere to and wish to alter the social rule of fathers. These repetitions within the cycle of American liberalism are present in Obama's career. First, I will examine Obama's life, recount the dilemmas of American liberalism, and see where Obama fits in this political tradition.


The twists and turns in Obama's search for identity show the personal roots of his political faith. Obama is likely the first man elected to the Presidency who was conceived outside of wedlock, and who, at the time of his birth, had a bigamist/polygynist father.

To Freud, the family romance includes a tension between idealizing the parents and knowledge of sexual reproduction. In the autobiographical Dreams from My Father, Obama presents certain inaccuracies about his parents and his childhood. To him, it remains "an enduring puzzle" why his white maternal grandparents consented to having their daughter marry a black African (Obama, 1995, p. 12). Obama presents a more conventional view of his parents' relationship than actually occurred. In his memoir, he says that his mother and father were married in 1960 (Obama, 1995, p. 12). The actual date of the wedding was February 2, 1961 (Ripley, A., 2008) and Barack himself was born six months later on August 4, 1961. Obama admits: "I've never quite had the courage to explore" when "the marriage occurred" (Obama, 1995, p. 22). In 1995, he avoided looking at certain facts about his origins. By the time, he was running for President in 2008, he knew that his mother married when she was pregnant (Ripley, A., 2008). He had gained more courage in the intervening years.

Obama's father at the time of this marriage had a wife and two children in Kenya, though he untruthfully told his second wife that he was divorced. These are the messy beginnings of the life of our forty-fourth President. Obama told friends he grew up feeling like an orphan and writes of having a "sense of abandonment... as a boy" (Mendell, 2007, p. 19, Obama, 1995, p. 430). The actual occurrences of his childhood may have reinforced these feelings. Obama says his father left Hawaii in 1963 to attend Harvard, giving the impression that father, mother and son lived together for almost two years. This too is not accurate.

Obama Sr. graduated University of Hawaii in 1962 and left the state on June 22, 1962 to wind his way to Cambridge, when the son who bore his name was ten months old (Maraniss, 2008) Whether Barack's mother was in Hawaii at that time is uncertain. She is listed in the 1961-1962 Seattle Polk Directory as living in that city as Anna Obama. Under the name, Stanley Ann Dunham Obama, she was registered as a degree student at the nearby University of Washington in spring quarter of 1962, which went from March 26 to June 7, 1962 (Email to Ken Fuchsman from Robert Rhodes, U. …