Bion Meets Obama

Why the great disappointment with President Obama and his administration’s accomplishments? There are many explanations—he’s been too timid, too bold, unfocused, focused on the wrong things, too conciliatory, too left, too right, on and on. What’s missing from the critique is the rest of us—the citizenry—and our relationship to our elected leaders.

 

 

In 2008, the energy for civic engagement was high with grassroots groups meeting, raising money, going door-to-door, and phoning neighbors to get involved and create change in our politics and policies. Since the inauguration, the narrative has shifted from “What citizens can do to elect Obama?” to “What is Obama doing for us?” The kind education about issues and persistent attention to making sure he succeeds seems to have ended in November of 2008. The current disappointment is framed as Obama’s inability or unwillingness to “deliver” on “his promises” that “raised our expectations.” And “If he’s so great, why hasn’t he _______ already?”

 

Wilfred Bion had a theory of group psychology that distinguished between the work or task group and the assumption group. The work group is constituted to get something done. That is the group’s conscious focus. In the assumption group the same people unconsciously behaves as if something else entirely is at play. In the case of the US, the work is governance—managing out of economic peril, determining the role of government and other major institutions, providing conditions for health and prosperity, etc.

 

Recall the campaign slogan was Yes we can, not Yes I can. Yet the country behaves as if Obama was/is the savior, sent from an unknown planet (multi-racial/post-racial, next generation, Hawaii, Chicago, urban, urbane, etc.) to save the country. The disappointment, it seems to me, is with his mortality, his inability to change in an instant what has developed over decades.

 

According to Bion, the search for a savior is predictable of a dependency group, whose members’ behave as if the leader is all knowing and all powerful. Relatively passive members believe the leader will know how to solve all their problems. No one can fulfill such a role. In fact, a person in this position would appropriately insist on group members’ full participation in the given task. In the case of Obama, citizens should expect to be called to action.

 

Yet, in dependency groups, rather than hear the call for shared responsibility for the task, group members voice displeasure with the “chosen one” and discredit the leader as a fraud, inadequate, and otherwise unfit for the position. They choose instead to look for another savior. If we citizens want the Obama administration to succeed, we will need to act as if we are a part of the solution. We won’t be “delivered” by Obama or anyone else. His success is ours to make.

 

·       Have you been part of groups that expect the leader to “fix” everything? Have you heard yourself or others express relief when a new leader comes in to “take care” of things?

·       Do you find yourself impatient with a leader’s inadequacy yet unwilling to help the person succeed? After all, you might say, that’s why he/she is the leader.

·       Do you help a leader succeed or criticize (and overthrow) when the leader “fails”?