Why Does Barack Keep Making Weird Jokes About Michelle?
By DR. STEVEN BERGLAS
November 19, 2013
Clinical psychologist Steven Berglas will put Washington on the couch, starting with today’s debut of The POLITICO Shrink. An expert on the psychological consequences of success, he will use the column to peer into the psyches of the leaders who run our country.
As obsessed with message control as President Obama might be, every so often the mask slips and we get a glimpse of him as a regular guy, not the most powerful leader on Earth. One such moment occurred in September, when a microphone picked up a casual conversation between Obama and a United Nations official at the General Assembly gathering in New York. When asked if he had quit smoking, the president said he hadn’t had a cigarette in six years, adding, with a huge grin, “That’s because I’m scared of my wife.”
You might reasonably conclude that this was a harmless joke, a light-hearted moment of male bonding. Not me; I’m one of those quasi-Freudians who believe that jokes, like dreams and slips of the tongue, reveal repressed feelings, the emotional content of our lives that we would rather not address head-on. This joke—and other seemingly offhanded remarks Obama has made about his wife—tell us a whole lot about both the president’s self-esteem and his relationship with Michelle.
One aspect of joking that Sigmund Freud dealt with extensively in his 1905 treatise, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, was what he termed “tendentious humor”—hostility “disguised” as a jape or jibe to give the joke teller plausible deniability.
Consider the following bit of presidential humor. At a fundraiser for LGBT supporters last summer, Obama made a point of thanking Ellen DeGeneres, one of Hollywood’s most prominent lesbians, for introducing him: “I want to thank my wonderful friend, who accepts a little bit of teasing about Michelle beating her in pushups… but I think she claims Michelle didn’t go all the way down.”
Reactions were immediate. “Did President Obama make a blowjob joke?” BuzzFeed asked. The White House pool report noted that the president “let [the line] hang, naughtily, provoking laughter from the crowd.” Maybe that was the point: The comedic pause meant Obama could deny hostile intent by doing a “What, me funny?” imitation of Alfred E. Neuman. (As for the idea that the president stumbled into this obvious double entendre by accident—certainly that's what many Beltway insiders ultimately concluded, to which I say: Come on, we’re talking about one of the world’s most renowned public speakers.)
To me the important question is: What does it say about President Obama’s feelings for his wife that he made what certainly seems to be an oral sex joke about her in front of a room full of people?
Let’s take a look at some other comments the president has made about her. In an interview the First Couple did with Vogue earlier this year, they were asked what they each have learned from each other. Mrs. Obama answered: “I’ve learned to let go and enjoy … not take things too personally.” Mr. Obama’s response? “What Michelle has done is to remind me every day of the virtues of order,” he said. “Being on time. Hanging up your clothes.”
Should we infer that President Obama sees the first lady as a controlling martinet who is not too enthusiastic about unconventional sex? Probably not. More accurately, we might wonder whether the president’s barbed comments about his wife suggest that he resents needing her. It’s hard to be a divorced politician, after all. If you believe that “a thing said in jest, is half confessed” you’d have to conclude that much of what the president says about his wife reveals at least some degree of contempt for her.
But why? Michelle Obama is a veritable superwoman—a Princeton- and Harvard-educated attorney, stylish companion, loving mother and unwavering supporter of her husband. What’s not to like?
The Vogue interview offers some clues. “Michelle grew up in a model nuclear family: mom, dad, brother,” the president said. “There’s just a warmth and a sense of belonging. And you know, that’s not how I grew up. I had this far-flung family, father left at a very young age, a stepfather who ended up passing away as well. My mother was this wonderful spirit, and she was adventurous but not always very well organized.”
The first lady, in other words, grew up in an Ozzie & Harriet-type family—the kind Obama has said he wishes he’d had, sometimes even distorting his history to convince himself that he did. In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, the president idealizes the man who married and then dumped his mother. You can try to spin this all you want, but the fact is that a man who is abandoned in infancy by his father is psychologically scarred for life.
Most boys in that situation overcompensate for the anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt this causes by developing a defiant cool—a swaggering attitude of “nothing phases me, I’m a rock”—designed to disguise a hole in their self-concept. In psychological parlance, they engage in “compensatory adaptations” to pain, which, in time, become a compensatory personality style, a subtype of narcissism that converts every deficit into its obverse—as in, “I’m not inadequate. I’m The Man!”
The key to understanding the president’s less-than-charming jokes about Michelle is realizing that those who suffer compensatory narcissism dread emotional intimacy. To protect themselves against being hurt in adulthood as their abandoning fathers devastated them as children, they reverse their feelings. As in: “I don’t need or love that wonderful, talented, supportive woman; she’s a piece of crap.”
Here’s another example of the president’s humor. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, Obama followed tradition by giving a speech that poked fun at his administration and its urgent need for new energy and ideas to power his second term. He then said he would “take tips from Michelle.” What followed—to the delight of the audience—was a photomontage of the president with Mrs. Obama’s bangs where his shiny pate used to be. It was cute but nevertheless objectifying. All the president could borrow from his brilliant, accomplished wife was a hairstyle? Remember that when they first met, as two young Ivy Leaguers at the prestigious law firm Sidley Austin, she was his mentor!
Mrs. Obama’s jokes about her husband offer a telling contrast. While Freud made a big deal about how jokes reveal the content of the unconscious, he also allowed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (whether or not he actually said that famous quote). Michelle’s jokes about her husband are like a good Cuban cigar: rich, smooth and a little biting—but in a good way, never bitter.
Consider when Jimmy Fallon asked FLOTUS earlier this year if her marriage had changed since Obama became president. “We try to do date nights,” she responded. “It’s a little tough. Barack has a 20-car motorcade, men with guns, the ambulance is always there. How romantic can you be?” Michelle’s humor here expresses a bit of frustration, but it is aboveboard and not ad hominem. She understands she must pay a price for her husband’s success, and while she’d clearly rather not do so, she grins and bears it.
The chink in President Obama’s ego that provokes his put-downs of Michelle is not terribly uncommon among politicians. The propensity to be suave with strangers and insensitive or hurtful to intimates follows a twisted logic born of slights suffered when a boy is dependent upon, and trying to identify with, his father. When this hoped-for positive relationship—“Dad adores me, I’m his Little Man”—fails to occur, the hurt is indescribable.
Most boys recover and, in time, yearn for a romantic partner. However, when striving for that sort of attachment—feeling love and craving its return—a boy wounded by paternal rejection can panic: “What if she does to me what he did?” The simplest way to guard against a repetition of rejection is never again to be as vulnerable as you were when Dad dumped you. How do you do that and still bond with a woman in ways that look as though you are fully committed? By distancing yourself from her, through put-downs—as other politicians have chosen—by dividing your loyalty with lovers or prostitutes.
Of course, another Democratic president instantly comes to mind in this regard. Bill Clinton’s daddy issues are of a different sort—his father was killed in a car crash before Baby Bill was born, and the stepfather who raised him was an abusive alcoholic—but they left a similar scar on his self-esteem. Yet Bill did not put his wife, Hillary, down in public. Instead, he acted as though he adored her, then stabbed her in the back every time one of his dalliances came to light.
The Obamas’ marriage certainly looks ideal by comparison, considering Clinton’s intern scandal, Gennifer Flowers love tapes and all the rest, but there’s more than meets the eye. When the president sat for an interview with Marie Claire during his first term to talk about their “idyllic” marriage, one question seemed to spark a touch of ire in him.
“Before your books took off,” the interviewer asked him, “you had a period where [Michelle] was earning more than you were. How did that affect your relationship?” Although the president went on to say that he “always found it great if she was making all kinds of money,” he clearly sounded defensive in his initial response: “The truth is,” he said, “for 11 out of the 13 years we were married, I was making substantially more than her, and during the two years that I wasn’t, I was running for the United States Senate, which had its own gratifications. So it wasn’t as if I felt inadequate.”
Let’s put aside the question of who earned more. Dollars and cents aren’t the issue; respect and authentic intimacy are. Even if Marie Claire was wrong, why bother to set the record straight? If you need to tell the world you were a better provider than a woman who sacrificed much of her adult life to support your aspirations, something, I’m sorry to say, is amiss.