Why Obama Needs a Shrink in the White House

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

It’s not because he’s emotionally troubled. Quite the contrary, Barack Obamaappears to be emotionally sturdy and eminently rational. But while our country’s CEO is surrounded by lots of people all the time, he has the most isolated, and isolating, job on the planet. And because of the power dynamics inherent in any leader’s role, there are many things he can’t confide in to anyone on his senior team. Working, and staying connected, in the irreducible vacuum of the White House is one of the greatest perils of the presidency.

The idea of a shrink in the White House isn’t crazy. Some of the most high-performing, sophisticated CEOs around the world avail themselves of corporate psychoanalysts, advising them on complex issues ranging from the challenge of managing boards of directors to their efforts to change a maladaptive corporate culture to the effectiveness of their own evolving leadership styles.

Recent news accounts underscore the need for help. A recent front-page article in the New York Times “Gentle White House Nudges Test the Power of Persuasion,” described fraying tempers among House and Senate Democrats in the White House Cabinet Room, with Obama playing the role of “marriage counselor.” He tried in vain to bring people together by “listening carefully and appealing to reason.” While that approach may work in some situations, it is too coldly rational — as opposed to warmly emotional — and therefor not nearly enough to get Obama the support he so desperately needs. The combination of Presidential isolation and the value of adding a psychological perspective to his leadership armamentarium is precisely why Obama could benefit from such a sounding board. Who would deny that he could use some help navigating the irrationality of presidential politics, developing psychological strategies to influence key legislators, and managing a brilliant but strong team of personalities in the White House? Weaker leaders, including those who are less intelligent and less psychologically minded, would be less likely to benefit from such outside counsel.

Another recent Times piece made the need even clearer: “Missing Element in Obama’s Ties With G.O.P. Leaders: Good Chemistry.” According to the the article,Edward Kennedy used to say that “good chemisty is essential to good politics,” but Times reporter Mark Leibovich notes that Obama and and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill appear to have no personal chemistry whatsoever. His cerebral, intellectual approach is at odds with the more emotional, earthy appeals of most Republicans.

I can imagine having periodic, confidential conversations with Obama in which he develops more emotionally nuanced  and therefore more forceful  psychological approaches to persuading legislators in both parties. He’d also gain a greater depth of understanding of the way his leadership is perceived and experienced by his multiple constituencies. Whether you like him or not, our country needs him to succeed, and if he’s as open-minded as he appears to be, he should accept all the reasonable help he can get, including from a corporate psychoanalyst.