Obama as father figure

October 27, 2012

As we careen towards the finish line in this tumultuous electoral season, President Obama is asking voters to renew his contract as a father figure. And with his new, 11th-hour message that this election is all about “trust,” I think the father-thing is going to resonate.

Without going all Carl Jung on you, presidential campaigns are often about archetypes. John McCain as warrior.  Paul Ryan as super-hero. Joe Biden as the loyal friend.

In 2008, with the whole “hope and change” narrative – not to mention his youthful good looks and energy – Obama was situated somewhere between Jesus Christ and Rock Star in our collective unconscious. But now look at him. After four sobering years of economic crisis and an Arab Spring that just won’t quit, that increasingly-visible graying of the hair above his ears is symbolic. The President has aged, matured, and  – like the rest of us parents – seems both wiser and wearier as a result.

It’s evident in the way that he speaks to us. As I’ve watch the presidential debates with my own kids, I’ve been struck by how parental he sounds. Particularly in the third and final debate, where the president could barely mask his disdain for Mitt Romney’s less-than-up-to-date grasp of our military, many pundits – including my colleague, Melinda Henneberger – saw his tone as patronizing, and wondered whether it wouldn’t alienate undecided women voters in particular.

Patronizing? Perhaps. But isn’t that what parents do? They tell us what’s good for us in an “eat your spinach” sort of way and get exasperated, at times, when we just don’t “get it.” And the most annoying part of that schtick, as we all know, is that they’re often right.

It helps that the president is himself, by all accounts, a devoted father. (Heck, when Michelle Obama released their list of parenting rules for their daughters – which includes writing a report on every trip that they take and playing two sports each, one that they pick and one that she does – even I, a sometime-helicopter parent, initially thought it was a bit over the top. Until my 11-year-old told me that he wanted to quit violin and, invoking Michelle, I told him that he needed to learn how to work harder at things he finds difficult.)

None of which is to take anything away from Romney, who also appears to be a devoted family man. But somehow, Romney doesn’t come across as our collective Dad. That may be because since he hasn’t (yet, anyway) inhabited the Oval Office, his personal life has been under less scrutiny. His kids are also a good deal older.

To my mind, the image Romney projects – archetype-wise – is more that of the kind and generous businessman Uncle who shows up at Thanksgiving and slips you a 50 when your mom isn’t looking so that you can go buy something at the store that you *really* want. He’s a good person, I think. But I don’t get the same “Dad” vibe – that ineffable mix of stern authority combined with seasoned wisdom – when I listen to him speak. And perhaps, on some deeper level, that’s why when he speaks, I don’t find him as persuasive as the president.

There is, of course, a great irony here, in that as we know from the president’s own autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” his own life has in many ways been to forge an identity for himself in the absence of a father.

And sadly, there simply haven’t been enough female presidential candidates to sketch out the female version of this whole archetype thing. (Although there has been a lot of discussion of the new “Momism” and whether being a mother makes female politicians better suited to the job.)

 So call me Jungian. Tell me I’ve got an Electra complex. Or just call me crazy.

But I think I’m onto something.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist based in London who was previously the London correspondent for Politics Daily. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia.

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Melinda Henneberger · October 26, 2012