The sociology of self-esteem predicts that being a persistent minority would deflate Barack Obama's confidence and resilience. The opposite is true. How did that happen?


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 9, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Barack Obama: The Bedrock Confidence of Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside

This post is a response to Outsiderism, Self-Esteem, and Suicide: Kate Middleton's Wedding Dress by Stanton Peele


Americans don't believe social status affects psychological states, like self-esteem and depression. European sociologists are famous for relating these two things, the most renowned example being the concept of anomie developed by Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist.

Durkheim felt that social isolation and disintegration (anomie) lead to suicide. In his book, Suicide (I paraphrase Wikipedia), Durkheim treated suicide as a social phenomenon, explaining variations in its rate on a macro level, considering society-scale factors such as a lack of connections between people and the absence of social regulation of behavior, rather than viewing it in terms of individuals' feelings and motivations.

Such an approach is like speaking some strange European language for Americans, who view everything in terms of internal states and, increasingly, biological ones. Who cares whether people are alienated from their social surroundings, since depression is inbred and genetic? This leaves us unarmed for affecting social variables that impact the moods of Americans. We prefer to send people to therapy and, mostly, to give them pills.

Which brings us to Barack Obama, who (a) was an outsider everywhere he went, (b) integrated himself in a way that reinforced his already seemingly unchallengeable self-esteem.

How did that happen?

We now have a source work for examining this question:  Janny Scott's "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother," which tells us a great deal about how Obama was raised by his mother, Stanley Anne Dunham.

In brief, Dunham was a young, single mother (she became pregnant with Barack when she was 17) and a wanderer, who took her son as a child to Indonesia to live with her second husband (whom she was to divorce before long), while she was still in her early twenties. In Indonesia, Barack's blackness stood out even more; Indonesians are extremely sensitive about race, and are especially aware of people with African backgrounds.

But people who knew the family were amazed at how openly Obama, still a kid, went out among Indonesians. They found him to be, and Dunham boasted that he was, extremely fearless. He seemed capable of accepting stares, even insults, without withdrawing, and still to reach out and to integrate himself into social groups.

In interviews, Scott attributes Obama's "coolness" as an adult to an Indonesian tradition he learned there of not taking the bait when people insult you, since this kind of jibing goes on all the time and it is considered bad form to overreact to it. Along with this, Scott says, there may be a "constitutional" non-reactivity in Obama's make-up.

Thus, Scott tends to downplay the touchstone of her book: How Obama's mother provided him with a bedrock psychological security at the same time that she presented him with a remarkable series of challenges.  From the Times review :

Most striking, though, is how much confidence and faith she had in her son from very early in his life. "She would boast about his brains, his achievements, how brave and bold he was," Ms. Scott reports. More than one friend remembered her saying that she thought he could even be president of the United States.

But, after bringing Obama to Indonesia as a small child, she sent him home at age ten to live with his grandparents without her. Obama nonetheless declares that she gave him "a sense of unconditional love that was big enough that, with all the surface disturbances of our lives, it sustained me, entirely."

Dunham succeeded in creating a person with a seemingly unassailable self-image. Here is a description of how he bounced back from a dejecting experience at the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, which came shortly after he lost his primary race to become a Democratic congressional candidate in Chicago:

The Hawker jet lifted out of Springfield, Ill., under midnight darkness, and Barack Obama leaned back into a leather chair. In his lap rested a copy of the keynote address he would deliver in three days at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He thumbed through its pages again, even though he already had committed most of the 2,300 words to memory.

As the plane leveled, Obama told his wife and advisers about his previous trip to a Democratic convention, in 2000. He had booked a last-minute flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, where an airport Hertz car-rental counter denied his credit card. Lacking political cachet, Obama had been unable to procure a floor pass into the convention. He watched speeches on a Jumbotron outside the arena before flying home, dejected, a few days before the finale.

But four years later Obama delivered his barn-burning speech at the convention that thrust him into the national spotlight. Eight years later he was elected the first Black president of the United States, despite having a name that people still confuse with the now deceased major anti-American terrorist in the world. Obama somehow, while being viewed as an essential outsider by a significant portion of Americans, slipped readily into the corridors of insider power.

Obama's seemingly unshakeable self-confidence and ability to tolerate derision and doubt have certainly been apparent as President. His personal outlook also helps in understanding how in military and security matters, Obama has simultaneously occupied insider and outsider positions, having been a critic of American involvements while augmenting and expanding our military and security efforts. Although I personally question some of these policies, I find remarkable the personality of the man who creates and carries them out.