President Obama: Soul-Searching at 50?

Illustration for article titled President Obama: Soul-Searching at 50?

This week, after achieving a political milestone with the cliff-hanger on the debt-ceiling crisis, President Obama can now face a personal milestone: He turns 50 on Aug. 4.


For any man reaching 50, this midpoint in life is rife with emotions. First and foremost, there is the reality that no matter how young you feel, you have now officially entered the twilight zone of middle age. You may have laughed about joining AARP a few years ago, but now the discounts they offer are starting to look a little more attractive. By the way, did you just look twice at the Grecian Formula package in the hair care section of your drugstore? 

Turning 50 brings the standard regrets: faulty decisions, unaccomplished personal and professional goals, and relationships that could have turned out better. For many, this can become the grist for a midlife crisis. Some men handle it by chucking their spouse and getting the convertible sports car with the 27-year-old blond accessory.

Many more embrace a sense of triumph from having made it to the half-century mark, where they have learned from past mistakes, achieved success, cultivated positive relationships (especially with family) and have grown wiser from their experiences, giving them the tailwind to confidently head into the next phase of life.

As a man, Barack Obama is struggling with the same issues as the rest of us in reaching midlife. He has openly talked about feeling and looking older. On several occasions recently, he has jokingly acknowledged going gray, having bags under his eyes and having a few more dents and dings.

He has also discussed his trepidations about his daughters getting older and wearing shorter dresses when they begin to date in the future. Amie Parnes of Politico reports that in a recent interview, he lamented how becoming 50 will leave him with more yesterdays than tomorrows.

But Barack Obama is not like the rest of us. He is the president of the United States, the leader of the free world and the first black president of our nation. His transition to middle age will be different and unique.


Only President Obama himself knows the intricate internal processes and struggles he is experiencing at reaching the milestone of age 50. But given his public life and public persona, I will attempt an armchair analysis of what he is thinking and the areas of his life he is reassessing as he makes the transition to midlife.

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By all measures, President Obama appears to be physically healthy. He is slim, has a low body mass index and is a pretty good basketball player. But he has one really bad habit — smoking — and smoking kills! President Obama has acknowledged that he has struggles with smoking.


Many health experts agree that if we have not led a healthy and active lifestyle, age 50 is probably our last and best chance to do so in order to be healthier in our 60s and later. It is quite likely that President Obama is also thinking the same thing. He realizes that he must stop smoking. With the kind of stress he faces every day, he has to get more serious about preserving his health as the president and as a husband and father.

The Presidency

This is the perfect time for President Obama to kick back at his desk in the Oval Office and ponder how his presence, his work, his policies and ideology have impacted not just the United States but the entire world. Many believe he saved the U.S. economy (and the world) from going down in flames, while others say he has not been effective enough, given the continued high rate of unemployment.


What cannot be disputed is that he stepped into the presidency during one of the most politically and financially unstable periods in our history and that he took decisive action. Time will reveal the true results of his efforts.

Still, so much was expected from this president and so much was promised by this man. That is why President Obama must honestly assess his own successes and failures and integrate his conclusions into his persona and emotional being. Despite all his followers and critics, this self-reflection will give him a better perspective and understanding of who he has been in the first half of his life, and what he can strive for in the second half, as an individual and as president of the United States.  



When it became clear that Barack Obama was a serious and successful candidate for president, he became part of a social movement for change. He energized the disenfranchised, the frustrated and the youth (via social networking). On assuming the presidency as a charismatic and youthful presence — and of course, as the first black man to hold the most powerful office in the world — he was seen as more than a man; he achieved rock-star status and became a living symbol of change.


As a new president, he stepped into multiple crises. He has worked as hard as any president in recent history, guiding America through a recession while serving as commander-in-chief in three concurrent wars — in addition to all the daily responsibilities of governing.

As Obama assesses his life at 50 — given the scope of his remarkable life and actual working experience as president so far — it is a safe bet that these events have forever changed his perception of himself. He must realize, accept and integrate into his persona that he has ascended intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. He must face the fact that he may be one of the most important black men in history by being the first of his race to achieve the presidency, and that his legend will only grow stronger as time passes.


Like some other men cast into fame, from Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he may begin to embrace the concept that there is a destiny and purpose that is greater than he is. But he must also reconcile himself to the fact that no matter what greatness he achieves as a world figure, there are some who will prejudge him, criticize him and diminish his accomplishments, based on both conscious and unconscious biases.

After all, he has had to go through the indignity of producing his birth certificate to prove that he "is one of us." By all appearances, he appears to be handling this dichotomy quite well, and he continually exhibits a strong, quiet dignity in the face of these issues. 


So as Obama hits the big 5-0, he has some pretty heady stuff to deal with. As president, he may not be able to turn to a psychotherapist to sort it all out, but he will probably address these issues with the help of his brilliant wife and partner, Michelle. In addition, his religious faith may grow even stronger as he struggles with and seeks an understanding of his place in history, his ultimate direction and goals as a world leader, and his position as a man facing the final half of his life. 

Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist; an assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine; a contributor to NBC's Today show, New York City's Fox 5 News and; and host of VH1's Dad Camp.


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