Maureen Dowd has become disillusioned with President Obama in this, his second term. To her, he’s so much less admirable than Candidate Obama was, or even than President Obama was in his first term.
It’s probably correct to conclude that Dowd stands for millions of other liberals similarly let down. But don’t get too excited—I’d wager that neither Dowd nor the rest are considering a leap to conservatism, or even to taking conservatives or Republicans seriously as alternatives to Democrats. And this despite the fact that many erstwhile Obama supporters acknowledge (as Dowd does) that Obama seems weak and vacillating, less charming and articulate than before, unwilling to schmooze with or reach out to Democrats in Congress to push his agenda, aloof and just plain “weird.”
All those are things that were already at least somewhat apparent during the 2008 campaign, and which became even more apparent during Obama’s first term. They are characteristics that much of the right detected in Obama from the start—and that was just the tip of the iceberg of the problems they saw.
Now many liberals and leftists have also noticed. But in the immortal words of Hillary Clinton in another context, what difference will it make? Dowd and company (and most of my friends, I’d wager) will merely say that Obama has lost steam and changed from the wonderful person he used to be. The vast majority are highly unlikely to believe that their judgment was impaired in their original assessment, and/or that Obama was and still is deceptive or manipulative. They will not question their basic political belief system, which will remain intact, or try to see the enemy (Republicans, that is) in a new light. They will support Obama as best they can, halfheartedly and despite their disappointment, and then turn to the next liberal candidate (perhaps her initials are HRC) and trust the mainstream media to guide them as before.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc…
Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others.
I’ve written extensively about the phenomenon of political change. But that can obscure the fact that political change is rare, even when people are confronted with dissonance that should be a challenge their beliefs. It is just too painful, too threatening (too “difficult,” as expressed in the title of my series) for most people to actually change their political affiliation, despite whatever challenges their beliefs might encounter.
There are other aspects of political change that are hard. Prominent among them are the social negatives I’ve also written about many times: rejection by friends and family if one is leaving the fold, or at the very least social awkwardness and the need to avoid certain topics if peace is to be maintained. But serious and sobering though that prospect is, it pales in comparison to the more basic potential alienation: separation from the previous self and its beliefs. And so it is hardly surprising that most people will do almost anything to avoid such a rift.