When I was a kid, I was pretty sure of whatever conclusions I came to. This used to irritate my father, who would say with exasperation when we disagreed, “You just think you’re right.” I found that an odd thing to say. Of course I thought I was right. Why would I have said it if I hadn’t thought I was right? Why should I question myself now?
My 12-year-old self would have really understood Barack Obama and various other politicians who seem puzzled when people want them to pinpoint the things they’ve been wrong about. I was reminded of it again a couple of days ago when I read these quotes from Obama when CBS News asked him about his mistakes as president so far. He sounded like a job applicant struggling to find an answer to a question about what he biggest weakness is.
“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well,” Obama said, “the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
See? He hasn’t actually made any mistakes. He just hasn’t sold his actions well enough.
Even though Obama made specific predictions about what his policies would achieve — and those predictions have been very wrong — you don’t hear him questioning the things he believed or the policies he pursued. Unemployment is now worse than what he said it would be if we did absolutely nothing to address problems. And we’re so far away from what he predicted his policies would achieve that nobody even brings up those predictions anymore.
He doesn’t seem capable of saying, “You know what? I thought stimulus spending would kick-start the economy and pull us out of our economic problems. That’s what my economic advisors told me, but it turns out their theories were wrong and their programs didn’t work. I’ve learned not to trust these theories and I’m trying to figure out what will work instead.”
Obama’s words aren’t those of a man with the ability to reflect on his actions and admit error. Instead, they reflect a narcissistic man who needs to prove to the world that he was right, no matter what the evidence says.
When most people speak of narcissism, they’re thinking of people who are excessively interested in their looks or who think too highly of themselves in some other way. I’m using the word narcissism as a psychologist might use it instead. We all have some narcissistic traits. Some psychologists even see some forms of what they consider healthy narcissism. (As with a lot of things, it’s a matter of definitions.) But Obama and politicians like him seem to potentially fall into a category that’s clinically called narcissistic personality disorder. Read these characteristics of the classical narcissist (from the previous link) and see if you think it sounds like politicians:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
In the 20 years I spent working in politics, I saw over and over that successful politicians are almost always narcissists when you get to know them. I regularly saw all of those traits. And I found that most who weren’t excessively narcissistic had little chance to go far in the political world. When you consider that, it’s depressing.
Most people don’t want a humble leader. They don’t want someone who admits mistakes and admits having to grow and learn. They want someone who projects an image of invincibility. They want someone who is certain of everything. And that’s what they get in the people they elect to high office.
This isn’t a partisan issue. I see Obama as a narcissist, but George W. Bush was one, too. (Watch this one-minute clip of Bush trying to answer a journalist’s question about what his biggest mistake had been. It’s revealing.) If you elect Mitt Romney, you’ll get another one. Anybody who’s made it to this level is almost guaranteed to be a clinical narcissist.
If you wonder why it’s not possible to elect humble and competent people who simply want to serve, remind yourself that it’s not what people want. They might say that want people to be able to admit mistakes and be able to act like them, but their voting actions say otherwise.
Most people are looking for a superhero to be their savior. They’re scared of taking responsibility for themselves, so they look to a hero to do it for them. So understand that when you get narcissists as your political leaders, it’s not a random and unexpected glitch in the system. Instead, it’s just the system working the way it’s supposed to. And that should scare you.