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I am going out on a limb here. I've never met nor seen President Obama in person, but I'm going to attempt to draw inferences about what's behind his negotiating style based upon many digital images of him, his speeches and writings, and biographical information.

This is not an impossible task. Many of us have seen as much of Obama as we have of friends and acquaintances about whom we regularly form impressions and draw inferences about their character and personality traits.

President Obama's negotiating tactics have been discussed in numerous posts on Daily Kos and other blogs. The general consensus is that he approaches negotiations with political rivals from a weak position, putting too much on the table initially and then, if not giving away the farm, at least severely reducing its acreage.

I wanted to examine the possible motivations behind this approach. In doing so, rather than searching for a master plan or outcome or some 11-dimensional chess strategy, I wanted to look back within the personality and background of the man to whatever extent possible for clues to his approach to negotiation.

'Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.
--Alexander Pope, 1734.
It is impossible to read Obama's autobiographical "Dreams from my father" (1995) without concluding that Barack Obama is an exceedingly intelligent and sensitive person, surely one of the most highly developed men who have ever held the title of President of the United States. He is a superb communicator, writing a book that cannot be put down once begun. He is also a person with an intense vision of the world's ills and their causes and possible cures. He thoroughly empathizes with the plight of society's underdogs. His inclination is progressive, not conservative.

Is there then something in his background, in his early educational / psychological development that interferes with his ability to right societal wrongs?

Early school years

Obama's personal recollections begin with his family's move to Jakarta, Indonesia when he was six, in 1967. They lived in a very primitive, impoverished section of the city. That year, the St. Francis of Assisi School (Santo Fransiskus Asisi) was opened, and Obama was enrolled in the first grade on January 1, 1968. St. Francis of Assisi is a Roman Catholic school taught by Franciscan nuns and run by a "stern Dutch priest".

The school's teachers were members of the Franciscan order that originated in The Netherlands and brought missionaries to Indonesia to minister to the poor.  The order describes themselves as follows:

We are the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Mother of God, founded in Veghel, The Netherlands on June 24, 1844. The Congregation was co-founded by Pastor Bernardinus Joannes van Miert and his niece, Sister Teresia van Miert. From the start their unique aim was the care of the needy in whom they recognized the suffering Jesus.
. Steeped in the Gospel and in the way St. Francis lived it, after the example of the Sisters who preceded us, we give special attention to the underprivileged sectors of society. We open our eyes to the needs of the people in our surroundings and search for ways to alleviate their sufferings.
Franciscan sister teaching in Indonesia.


Besides following the teachings of Jesus, the Franciscan sisters emulated the life and legends of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is one of the church's major saints, being honored also by several Protestant churches. His themes are poverty, animals and nature.

St. Francis was born into a wealthy Italian merchant family, but later gave up wealth and took on poverty, joining with beggars. His father punished him for this, but St. Francis legally renounced his father and founded a religious order that emphasized poverty and obedience to the way of Jesus.

Among the legends associated with St. Francis is this one of the saint and the wolf:

Another legend from the Fioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf "terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals". Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. "Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil...", said Francis. "All these people accuse you and curse you... But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people". Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger”, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly, and in return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Francis, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, blessed the wolf. [Wikipedia]

Please keep the wolf story in mind, as I will return to it later.

In his autobiography, Obama says very little about his early schooling in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school, two years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies. My mother wasn’t overly concerned. “Be respectful,” she’d said. In the Catholic school, when it came time to pray, I would pretend to close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and thirty brown children, muttering words. Sometimes the nun would catch me, and her stern look would force my lids back shut. But that didn’t change how I felt inside.

Obama apparently mis-remembers the timing of his schooling, stating two years at each school, while clearer evidence indicates three years of Catholic school and less than one year of Muslim school. Obama attended grades 1-3 at the Catholic school, until his family moved to a more upscale area and he enrolled in a public Muslim school, Besuki School, for fourth grade. Besuki School records were lost in a flood, so it is not known how long Obama attended that school, but probably for less than a year, when he was sent to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His mother had decided he should be educated in the U.S. so that he would view himself as an American rather than a foreigner. He took grades 5-12 in Honolulu at Punahou School, a prestigious private college prep school. (The school was founded originally to serve children of missionaries by Rev. Daniel Dole, a Protestant missionary from Maine, in 1841. The school is said to be the largest independent school in the U.S.)

All three schools were religiously-oriented and required participation in prayers and/or religious services. Of the three, my focus will be upon the Catholic school because it was his first school, covering three of the most formative educational years and because he downplays his attendance, in the above quotation placing it second in discussion order, out of chronological order, and misstating the length of his attendance. He wants us to know that he "felt inside" differently from what was expected of him, but chooses not to tell us exactly how he felt inside.

Grades 1-3 were his introduction to morality lessons from the outside world, rather than from his family. The first school years occur when a child's understanding of his social environment is developing, when his picture of how the world operates and his role in it are most readily drawn by authority figures such as teachers. Obama's intelligent, absorptive mind no doubt sponged up his lessons not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but also the morality lessons from the bible and from the Franciscan traditions.

Lessons taught in the earliest grades form a deep and lasting impression on children, and particularly on bright and receptive children. Future trees are being inclined. Habits are being formed. Perceptions of the world and its social structure are being painted in. These mental formations will ordinarily persist throughout a lifetime, mostly hidden in the subconscious mind, beyond the reach of memory. For these reasons I called attention to Obama's apparent memory gap regarding his earliest education. It almost seems like a rejection, a refusal to recognize that period which, while to the adult is boring, to the youngster is critically laying the building blocks of his approach to life.

Obama, perhaps in spite of himself, does reveal something in his brief description of the classroom prayer period. He is looking around when his eyes are supposed to be closed, but he seems to be more inquisitive than rebellious. He is searching for truth--are angels descending?--rather than goofing off and rejecting the whole scene. He sees a bunch of kids muttering memorized words and he seems to be searching for the meaning behind the words. Later, a little older, he is making faces during the Koranic readings. This sounds like more of a rejection of the readings, or an unspoken questioning of perceived conflicts with earlier Christian readings. All in all, these images suggest a child who is seriously absorbing his lessons, questioning them, trying to make sense of them.

"I think of a child's mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly."
-Walt Disney
I emphasize Obama’s omission of details of his early schooling because those things that are forgotten, unspoken, unacknowledged so often are the most important influences on one’s character and the least susceptible to change because they are inaccessible to one’s conscious mind. Just as we do arithmetic problems automatically without remembrance of how we learned to do them or questioning the rightness of our processes, so we approach social situations automatically, using paradigms created in our early learning.

Undoubtedly the moral and social paradigms promoted by the Franciscan sisters, based upon their religious ideals, were instilled both overtly through direct teaching and subtly through their living out the aims of their religious order. With poverty, for instance, the sisters no doubt taught that poverty is a desired moral ideal, but also by practicing that virtue reinforced their teaching through example.

Facing the wolf
Bad Wolf by doug88888

The legend of St. Francis and the wolf encapsulates Christian teachings. God's love is seen in all nature--in animals, in the underprivileged, in everyone. There is good in everyone and we must bring it out. Hate the sin but love the sinner. St. Francis saw that the wolf was only hungry, not really evil, but his hunger was creating problems for the people. So he made a deal with the wolf: if the people fed him, he would stop attacking them. And he similarly brought peace between the wolf and the town's dogs. He compromised with the wolf by "putting on the table" the food he wanted in exchange for a promise not to harass the people (in effect a bribe).

I would be very surprised if this tale was not told multiple times to Obama and his classmates. It's a colorful tale that the children no doubt took literally. But even without the legend, these ideas would have been conveyed to the children many times in many ways: love your neighbor, find the good in everyone, promote it through peaceful cooperation. Even a fearsome creature will soften and yield to the blessings of a God-loving person.

I would like to discuss another aspect of Obama's early schooling, the social status of the teachers and students at St. Francis School. The school was in a highly impoverished area of Jakarta. The nuns, following their mission to serve the poor and underprivileged, came there from The Netherlands, and though having taken the vow of poverty, were not as destitute as some of their charges. Their needs, though at a low level, would have been reliably provided by their internationally-based religious order. They had a great deal of security and were free of the stresses and uncertainties that most certainly plagued their students.

I don't mean to criticize the order, because this sort of disparity is necessary and unavoidable in providing services for the underclasses. So also it is unavoidable that the students would have been reinforced in their perception of themselves as underdogs, in socioeconomic terms and sometimes in racial terms. Contemporary accounts show a range of skin colors among the nuns, but in the 1960s white-skinned Europeans might have comprised the dominant group.

It was at this time that Obama was becoming aware of racial distinctions. In his autobiography he recounts his great dismay in seeing a magazine article about a black man who had undergone a chemical treatment to lighten his skin. Until then he didn't realize that dark-skinned people might be ashamed of their appearance.

"I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page... As in a dream, I had no voice for my newfound fear." [p.28]

To the students of St. Francis School, those who constituted the Establishment, the authorities, were the nuns and the stern Dutch priest, presumably the school principal, referenced above. The children would have perceived clearly that they themselves were underdogs, guided, controlled by the nuns and priest, and above them the Pope, the saints and God in Heaven. In order to function well in this world, they must follow the rules set forth by the authorities, from the Ten Commandments on down. They would see that there is a rule-making hierarchy above them. They might aspire to join the hierarchy as adults, but primarily they were groomed to love God and accept contentedly their niche in life; the next life would be better.

This would not be a school that would foster innovation or creativity. The focus, while being quite other-worldly, would be upon following rules and making the best of a world where everything is already decided and by putting trust in God and awaiting one's rewards in the afterlife.

I would wager that Obama was likely the brightest child in his class. He would undoubtedly have had many questions about his (primarily religious) curriculum, but would have come away with the idea that this world and the next were run under definite rules, and knowing and understanding the rules was the key to success. The rules were formulated by the elite of the world, and by mastering the rules one might join the elite, though there were the difficulties of socioeconomic status and racial barriers to overcome.

In addition, there was the big question of knowing his family background, of finding a father to relate to, which is the main theme of his autobiography.

Making his way into the legal profession would seem an appropriate move for this bright young man with the photographic memory and ability to call up intricate details in writing or speaking, the intelligent young man whose most formative schooling consisted of learning to conform, obey the rules and be polite and loving. And of course Obama became a learned scholar of constitutional law, a student of such charm and predictability that he was named president of the Harvard Law Review in his second year at the law school, the first African-American to gain that title.

The school's omissions

Besides some features of the St. Francis of Assisi School curriculum mentioned above that might have benefited Obama by their absence, I would like to point to two omissions of importance.

The first is that in their interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus, emphasizing the Golden Rule, turning the other cheek, loving the sinner, etc., they most likely underplayed or skipped over in the many New Testament stories of Jesus, the incident when he entered the temple and found that money changers, aka banksters, had set up their offices in the house of God, turning the place into a "den of thieves".

Jesus drives out the money changers.

The story tells of Jesus forcibly driving the offending financiers from the temple, presumably successfully. This violent physical act was perhaps unique in the gospels, showing a different side of the peaceable Jesus.

The second point is that there seems no doubt that the school never taught their students that there are some people who simply cannot be dealt with in the usual loving pattern of seeking out the good in them, for they have no conscience and are known as sociopaths.

Sociopathy in politics

Sociopathic (aka psychopathic, anti-social) persons are basically bullies, lacking a normal conscience, lacking empathy with others, unable to feel or express real love, locked into a cold inner world where they seek satisfaction in controlling others without regard to consequences, usually able to avoid detection of these abnormalities because of their ability to lie without telltale emotional signals.

Any person who can observe human actions even superficially, or who can read novels and watch old movies, can learn to act romantic or interested or softhearted. Virtually anyone can learn to say “I love you,” or to appear smitten and say the words, “Oh, my! What a cute little puppy!” But not all human beings are capable of experiencing the emotion implied by the behavior. Sociopaths never do.
--The sociopath next door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. Broadway Books (Random House), NY, 2005, p. 128.

Dr. Stout says that about 4% of people are sociopaths, in varying degrees. Not all sociopaths are killers (and not all killers are sociopaths). The political profession is attractive to sociopaths because it offers the opportunity to control masses of people, to promote wars, to order torturing and killing, to make life more unpleasant for whatever group of people he dislikes, and of course to bring him notoriety and wealth to fill his joyless existence. He can appear to be connecting with others in spite of his lack of real emotional links. His ability to lie without compunction serves him well. Even a mundane piece of legislation will harm some people while helping others, but this will not worry him. He secretly hates his loveless condition and can readily turn that anger onto others. Power-wielding sociopaths also fit well in the finance industry. One would expect that within these professions, the incidence of sociopathy is higher than the population estimate of 4%.

Can we keep sociopaths out of politics? We pretty successfully screen out people who are too old or too young, who have physical illnesses or disabilities, who profess an unacceptable religion or no religion, who are the “wrong” gender or race, who have criminal records, but since there is no easy test for sociopathy, these individuals pass scrutiny, and in fact their suitability for office is enhanced by their sociopathy-driven traits.

So it is that at all levels of political office sociopaths reside, causing endless problems for society, for government and for the natural world in which we all live. So it is that good people in government must deal with and compromise with colleagues whose primary aim is to destroy, to whatever degree they can manage, their targeted enemies.

Besides sociopaths in government, there are probably spineless, clueless individuals who are driven by sociopathic forces behind the scenes, which support them financially through corporate largesse. These sad creatures may have consciences but feel compelled to silence their weak consciences through alcohol or drugs or distract themselves from their misdeeds through compulsive sex.

"Left at the altar"
Would you buy a used car from these guys?

After a breakdown of negotiations on the so-called debt crisis, President Obama in his July 23 weekly radio and Internet address said "I've been left at the altar now a couple of times". This phrase seems unfortunate from a public relations standpoint, while it is a slip that conveys something about his general approach to political and governmental give-and-take.

"Left at the altar", of course, is a phrase describing a bride whose husband-to-be fails to show up for the wedding. That Obama would embarrassingly use it to describe himself strongly suggests that he views himself in a passive "feminine" role in negotiations. Following this and Obama's cave-in to Boehner on the timing of Obama's upcoming message to Congress, The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky labeled Obama the Wimp in the White House. Other media sources had similar unflattering comments.

Is this approach an outcome of his schooling at St. Francis of Assisi? The school was not set up to train future presidents of the United States, but rather to teach Christian morality to Indonesian peasant children. The coming-together-ness and mutual love taught there may have been entirely appropriate for most of their students, but the bright and impressionable Obama would have benefited from a school for exceptional children where a harder, more realistic view of the world was taught. If there were a school for future leaders of the world, it would have to point out that one must sometimes deal with opponents, political and otherwise, with whom the St. Francis approach doesn't work. The whipping-the-banksters Jesus rather than the loving Jesus is called to mind.

Obama continually speaks of bi-partisanship and coming together in agreement, even though these ideals continually fail to materialize. It is as if he is echoing the St. Francis lessons, where everyone, rich or poor, joins together in the love of God; and to suffer is good when it is done for Jesus, and therefore everyone should take on suffering (austerity?) in the spirit of mutual love and harmony.

A flaw in bi-partisanship

I want to highlight this topic because I have not seen it discussed in this manner before.
The bi-partisan coming together of two political leaders is not the same as the bi-partisan coming together of a nation's people. Political harmony and national harmony are not necessarily the same, particularly in these times. When Obama and Boehner reach consensus on some issue, let's say splitting the difference between opposing goals, it doesn't mean they have reached an agreement that is satisfyingly in the center, a happy medium that will satisfy the needs of the most people. It may happen (and frequently will these days) that the needs and wishes of the people are weighted more heavily on the liberal side of the issue. This can be ascertained through polls, etc.

Therefore, Obama as a liberal should realize that he has the greater degree of political support when he positions himself farther to the left, where public opinion actually lies. This should give him more bargaining power, at least psychologically, provided he gives up his kumbaya approach. In addition, he should be supporting liberal/progressive principles, even if those lie farther left than the polling averages. His opponent will be supporting his own ideological principles, of course.

Fear of innovation

I have already discussed how Obama's education pushed him toward conformity and fear of innovation. He seemed ideally suited to be a constitutional law expert, where all the pertinent rules have been laid down and past events and legal interpretations of rules will determine future actions. Thus it should be no surprise that his administration so far has lacked creative actions even when the present crisis situation is crying out for new ideas. Obama is not a bold innovator like FDR, with his Social Security and WPA.
During the "debt crisis" debacle he could have used legal but novel mechanisms to circumvent the mess. Others (including our own Letsgetitdone) urged using platinum coin seigniorage  or the 14th amendment. The debt crisis will erupt again, giving Obama another chance to be innovative, but will he?

Obama's best success at peace-making is in international relations, where it has won him a Nobel prize. This works because, I would suggest, it is largely symbolic and does not involve one-on-one negotiations as it does with Congress. A nation's leader can call other nations hateful, threatening names (Cf. G.W.Bush) or he can express the desire for peaceful relations, as guidelines for concrete actions to be taken by lower-level representatives.

Obama's advisers and helpers have been largely selected from among those who assisted in bringing on the current economic crisis and tend to be those who echo his own don't-rock-the-boat approach. This reflects his early education at St. Francis. As I said above,
This would not be a school that would foster innovation or creativity. The focus, while being quite other-worldly, would be upon following rules and making the best of a world where everything is already decided...

What better way to deal with an already-programmed world than to surround oneself with those who helped do the programming?
President Obama meets with his advisers in June, 2011. White House.

Can the ideas put forth here help Obama govern more effectively? Will Obama read this diary? The answers to these are unknown. Hopefully this diary has broken some new ground for thinking about our President and how we might help him. Thank you so much for reading this far. I welcome your comments.

Money and Public Purpose DKos group has brought you this diary, although I have only touched in passing on
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It's a (relatively) new "Post-Keynesian" economic school of thought.  If you're interested in learning more, please follow our group, Money and Public Purpose.  Also, there is a small, but growing MMT wiki that is worth checking out.

Further Reading in Modern Monetary Theory (compiled by selise):

Bill Mitchell, Stephanie Kelton, Warren Mosler, Marshall Auerback, L. Randall Wray, Pavlina Tcherneva: Fiscal Sustainability Teach-In and Counter-Conference

Lynn Parramore and new deal 2.0: The Deficit: Nine Myths We Can’t Afford

Warren Mosler:
Seven Deadly Frauds of Economic Policy

William Mitchell:
Barnaby, better to walk before we run
Stock-flow consistent macro models
Deficit spending 101 – Part 1
Deficit spending 101 – Part 2
Deficit spending 101 – Part 3

L. Randall Wray:
Understanding Modern Money: The Key to Full Employment and Price Stability

James K. Galbraith:
The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too

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