Who's the narcissist?

Barack Obama shows all the signs, so watch out

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In his hit piece on Sarah Palin for Vanity Fair, Todd Purdum wrote:

"More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin's extravagant self regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of 'narcissistic personality disorder' in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- 'a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy' -- and thought it fit her perfectly."

Bill Clinton last year described Mr. Purdum as a "sleazy, slimy scumbag," despite the fact that Mr. Purdum is married to his former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. And I suspect the anonymous Alaskans are a product of Mr. Purdum's imagination. But because he has gone there, I now feel free to write something I've thought about a lot, but have hesitated to put into print.

A person who wrote two autobiographies before he was 45 is no piker when it comes to extravagant self regard.

Virtually all politicians exhibit some narcissistic traits. But columnist Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist, asked last year: "has there ever been a presidential nominee with a wider gap between his estimation of himself and the sum total of his achievements?"

"Barack Obama appears to be a narcissist," wrote Shmuel (Sam) Vaknin, who's written two books on narcissism, in July of 2008. "Narcissistic leaders are nefarious and their effects pernicious. They are subtle, refined, socially adept, manipulative, possessed of thespian skills and convincing. [They] lack empathy and are ruthless and relentless."

Only after lengthy tests and personal interviews can a qualified mental-health professional determine whether someone suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, Mr. Vaknin acknowledged. But for his article in the American Chronicle, Mr. Vaknin constructed the kind of psychological profile the CIA commissions on foreign leaders.

If Barack Obama is a narcissist, it's not his fault. "Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence," Dr. Vaknin wrote.

Barack Obama's father deserted him at age two. He was a product of a racially mixed marriage, which can be stressful even when the marriage is stable. His mother carted him off to Indonesia (another culture) at an early age, and then divorced his stepfather. She shipped him off at age 10 to live with his grandparents in Hawaii.

"Narcissism is a defense mechanism whose role is to deflect hurt and trauma from the victim's 'True Self' into a 'False Self' which is omnipotent, invulnerable and omniscient," Dr. Vaknin wrote.

Among the narcissistic traits Dr. Vaknin observed in Mr. Obama are that he:

• subtly misrepresents facts and expediently and opportunistically shifts positions;

• ignores data that conflict with his fantasy world;

• feels that he is above the law;

• craves to be the exclusive center of attention, and

• has a messianic-cosmic vision of himself.

If Mr. Obama is a narcissist, it would explain otherwise odd things, such as his notion that it was appropriate to include two of his speeches on an iPod he gave to the Queen of England and his frequent references to himself in virtually all of his speeches.

President Obama is constantly in campaign mode which, Dr. Vaknin said, is another sign of narcissism: "The narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamor of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments."

Mr. Obama is experiencing the first rough patch of his presidency. After six months, his job approval rating is 10th among the 12 post-World War II presidents, according to Gallup.

President Obama's signature issues are foundering even in a heavily Democratic Congress, as moderate lawmakers fret about their cost. Mr. Obama has responded by lashing out at critics rather than by seeking compromise.

Narcissists overreact to criticism and can quickly fall into a rage if their plans are frustrated, Dr. Vaknin said.

So what happens if the cheering stops?

"Narcissistic injury inevitably leads to narcissistic rage and to a terrifying display of unbridled aggression," Dr. Vaknin said.


Correction/Clarification: (Published July 30, 2009) This Jack Kelly column as originally published July 26, 2009 cited Schuel (Sam) Vaknin as a psychologist who had diagnosed President Barack Obama as having narcissistic personality disorder. Mr. Vaknin is not a credentialed psychologist.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476).


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