Is Obama Depressed?

September 16, 2011  |  

On election day 2008, America was handed a triumphant symbolic victory, albeit unfulfilled. To most of us, President-elect Obama was a largely ambiguous character onto whom many of us had attached our own psychological yearnings and contemplations.

The truth is, as always, revealed in the fullness of time. Much of the disparate patchwork that weaved together Obama’s life story, the stuff that gave birth to his psychological outlook, was available to us before election ’08. What was not available, however, was any informed analysis of how Obama’s experiences would translate once Obama stopped campaigning and began actually governing.

Gawker is now reporting that the Times is preparing a story arguing that President Obama is depressed. According to a Gawker article published September 12th, “Obama no longer finds joy in the political back-and-forth” and “has seemed increasingly listless to associates.” It goes without saying that an article on the state of Obama’s mental health is purely speculative since, without a report – or prescription- from the Presidential doctor, there’s no way of accurately discerning the President’s mental fitness. But murmurings on whether Obama requires Zoloft or Wellbutrin does add another layer of context to the debate about what it means to be the first black President and the expectations that title carries.

Arguably, the job of President carries with it a level of stress exponentially higher than any other job on the planet. Add to this the fact that Obama was elected the first black President in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression, and the stakes are that much higher.

Was Obama ready? Obama detractors have made the case that Obama’s thin resume should have clued us all in to the potential pitfalls of an Obama presidency, both legislatively and psychologically. Obama has never played a politically high stakes game. He’s never been CEO or governor. This explains why Obama ushered in former President Bill Clinton to effectively sit in for him during the 2010 tax deal and why he turned the BP disaster clean up over to the very scoundrels who caused it. This, I understand.

What many don’t understand, the question that has largely gone unanswered, is why liberals believed it unthinkable during the ’08 campaign that 1) if elected, Obama would be in over his head and 2) a President failing on such a global scale would endure some psychological trauma?

Simple. African Americans and liberals seem to have assumed that being black – thus sharing similar cultural experiences – would gives rise to certain cultural commonalities.The expectation was that by Obama being black, he had a unique historical narrative that would, at least in part, inform his psychological and political outlook. That being black was about more than hair texture or melanin, but a shared history, the outgrowth of which was at least some shared qualities.

And we thought that Obama would be secure enough in his outlook to steady himself psychologically. We thought that Obama was gearing up for a beautiful and principled struggle that our ancestors had been vigorously engaged in since before the American Revolution.

What we forgot is that even shared histories often translate differently.

President Obama’s non-verbal communication during the campaign – the intentional verbiage of Malcolm and the cadence of Martin – resonated with our ideas of the archetypically strong and principled black man. But there are other much more dysfunctional archetypes as well, such as the magic black man, the cowering black man, the Sambo black man, the pleaser black man, and the half grown (also known as the thug) black man.

This is not to say that all (or any) black men fit within these constructs. They don’t. And it would be racist to imply that they did. It would be just as shortsighted, though, to insist that President Obama isn’t subject to psychological frailty because he projects the strong black male archetype. If we’ve learned anything over the past three years, it’s that we don’t know Obama at all. We don’t know with any degree of certainty how he feels about being the first black President or how he’s responding to that challenge psychologically.

His experiences, his self-proclaimed blackness, are not translating in the way that many of us anticipated. We should double down on that. President Obama may not be lost to himself. He may very well be sure footed psychologically and the reports of his supposed depression are probably overblown. But where he’s lost, and where we’ve lost him, is in the translation. We don’t get him. And by all indications, he doesn’t get us either. If he is, in fact, depressed, then he’s not alone.

Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, and

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