For the past eight years, Americans have been dreaming of Barack Obama, and not just in an aspirational sense. At every step in his presidential journey, people across the United States have been seeing him in their sleep—in rapturous fantasies, skin-scrawling nightmares, and all sorts of weird situations in between.
This phenomenon first came to light during the 2008 primaries, when the novelist Sheila Heti solicited dreams about the Democratic candidates on a website called The Metaphysical Poll. As hundreds of dreamers submitted reports, the dreams about Obama gradually outnumbered the dreams about Hillary Clinton and painted a glowing portrait of the Illinois Senator. Dream Obama was a loyal husband and a generous friend, a cool-headed decision-maker, and a scorching-hot lover.
“At a time when no one knew who was going to win the Democratic Primaries, I was certain it was going to be Obama,” Heti remembers. “I had seen the dreams.”
She closed The Metaphysical Poll on June 10, 2008, three days after Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee. But the site’s spirit lives on in the work of Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist of religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. While completing American Dreamers, a book about the dream lives of American voters, Bulkeley became an enthusiastic supporter of Heti’s project. In 2009, he launched his own Sleep and Dream Database, a digital archive where he has continued to gather Obama dreams over the past eight years, amassing the internet’s largest curated collection.
With each sleepy glimpse of this former “dream candidate,” Bulkeley has gained new evidence to support his conviction, developed over 20 books, that there is “an outward-facing, culture-oriented dimension of dreaming.” This is a novel concept in the history of dream research, where psychologists dating back to Freud have typically viewed dreams as self-centered, with little relevance outside the personal wishes of the dreamer. Bulkeley and other contemporary researchers see things differently. They argue that a person’s dreams, when compared to others’ on a large enough scale, can also have collective significance, reflecting concerns shared by communities.
Obama’s nocturnal cameos throughout his presidency have served as an exciting test case for this society-oriented theory of dreaming, and internet dream banks have provided the data to back it up.
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Through much of American history, the most reliable proof that people dream about the country’s political system came from those who ran it. John Adams and Benjamin Rush used to parse each other’s dreams for insights into their political rivals. Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson reported recurring nightmares during their years in office.
When the first sleep laboratories opened in the 1950s, researchers could start to document the political dreams of ordinary citizens. Now, between Bulkeley’s database and the online Dream Bank run by the psychologist G. William Domhoff, you can find historical dream reports about every sitting president since World War II. Harry Truman cuts a sly figure on the sleepy streets of the Midwest. LBJ ruins delicious sex dreams. Dreams about politicians can be studied in unprecedented numbers and searched through with unprecedented speed.
When Bulkeley launched his database in 2009, he archived 100 Obama dreams from Heti’s site. Eight years, and two terms, later, Obama continues to appear among the more than 20,000 dream reports on the site, showing up in dream diaries, opinion surveys, and psychological experiments. These carefully vetted entries from mostly academic sources are considerably more reliable than the Obama dreams on user-generated sites like YouTube, Reddit, and Dreamjournal.net, which, numerous as they may be, have not been recorded in a transparent and systematic manner. For every dreamer in Bulkeley’s Database who has shared a steamy Oval Office rendezvous, there may be other Americans too bashful or forgetful to accurately record their own.
If gathered scrupulously, and supplemented with information about the dreamers, Obama dreams have the potential to offer a “lovely, uncontrolled example of how the president was imagined,” says Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Fine studies the historical reputations of American public figures and shares Bulkeley’s belief that dreams are more than just reflections of the self. When historians turn to Obama dreams in the years to come, it will not be for their “esoteric symbolism,” he predicts, but for what “the dreams tell us about American politics.”
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Though outnumbered by conservatives in the electorate, liberals appear to dominate the dream life of the nation. Dream-survey volunteers typically skew left-of-center, and an intriguing body of research shows that liberals are more active dreamers than conservatives. In one 2011 study for the journal Dreaming, for instance, Bulkeley surveyed thousands of American adults who identified as either conservative or liberal and found that his conservative subjects were, in the study’s words, “slightly better sleepers and relatively minimal dreamers,” while his liberal participants had higher rates of dream recall and “more expansive” dreams.
The Obama dreams at his Sleep and Dream Database reflect these trends, vividly documenting liberals’ evolving views of the president over the past eight years. In the early dreams, Obama is a figure of messianic powers, resolving disputes, levitating objects, and, in one eerily prophetic dream, ripping off Osama Bin Laden’s fingers with his teeth. Around the time of the 2010 midterms, he begins to succumb to the political crises that the dreamers were following in the news. A 54-year-old woman from Washington State dreams of a sinister conspiracy involving “GM and the big oil companies,” who are staging the BP Oil Spill to make Obama look bad. A 2011 report shows a 50-year-old dreamer reacting to the news that his wife “doesn’t think she likes Obama any more.”
Obama continues to struggle in dreams from his second term. He is insulted at social gatherings and shows up to a speech “crippled and in a wheelchair.” But even as Obama has been worn down by the rigors of the presidency, Bulkeley’s liberal subjects have maintained their fondness for the man behind the institution. They dream of drinking beers with him at parties. They dream of meeting him for lunch dates. As one of Bulkeley’s longtime subjects, an East Coast liberal, puts it in a dream report from 2015: “[Obama] acknowledges my presence in some way. ... His presence is strong.”
That intimate bond was still on display in an election-themed dream survey that Bulkeley commissioned with YouGov in May. Obama dreams showed up among the feverish visions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and highlighted the conflicted feelings that many subjects had toward the presidential contenders. The Clinton dreams often depicted a committed public servant and “a good listener,” but they “had none of the mystical halo of wonder and awe that people felt around Obama,” Bulkeley recalls. The dreams about Trump “were almost like the evil twins of the Obama dreams”: The Republican candidate projected strength and confidence, and appeared in dreams with greater frequency than Clinton, but dreamers on both ends of the political spectrum tended to describe him in negative terms (“unfriendly,” “a jerk,” “a raving megalomaniac”), according to Bulkeley. Amid a strange and unpredictable campaign, Dream Obama was, comparatively speaking, a calm and consistent presence.
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Every dream researcher I’ve interviewed has attributed this nocturnal staying power to Obama’s visibility in the media. “Our modern global connectivity intensifies the effect of us all seeing the same images,” says Deirdre Barrett, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “These daytime experiences are what our dream life is built from.” As the first American President elected in the social-media age, Obama has had his image consumed more frequently, and shared more widely, than any of his predecessors. This raises a tantalizing question: Is he the most dreamed-about president in American history?
It is a point “that dream research can’t yet confirm with a whole lot of confidence,” Bulkeley says. There is not enough control data to compare presidential dreaming across administrations, and dreaming is such an intensely private experience that its social dimensions will always be hard to quantify. Online databases may eventually allow researchers to study the most esoteric dream content in large data sets, and to organize that data with incredible speed, but Big Dream Data is still in its infancy. For now, Bulkeley’s work remains “an inductive process.” He notices the relative frequency of certain kinds of dreams and then tries to amass enough dream reports to discern meaningful patterns in their content.
As I gathered dream data to compare with Bulkeley’s reports, I tracked down a dozen Obama dreamers via dream boards and social-media platforms: a farmer in Ohio, a child-care provider in Texas, and a copywriter in Los Angeles, to name a few, along with dreamers from Australia and Canada. This was hardly a comprehensive survey of the political dreamscape, but it supported Bulkeley’s observation, dating back to The Metaphysical Poll, that people who are willing to share their Obama dreams are mostly left-of-center voters with positive views of the president. Even as the Americans I spoke with have grown apart from Obama on issues like drone warfare or health-care reform, he has remained a sympathetic presence in their dreams.
He has offered advice to their Republican spouses. He has gently deflected their sexual advances. He has picked their outfits for important job interviews, then fixed them eggs and coffee for the road. For some dreamers, these have been regular appearances, occurring once or twice a year throughout his presidency; for others, there was a single, unforgettable encounter. In 25 years of studying dreams about politicians, Bulkeley has never seen another figure who more clearly supports his hypothesis that a person’s “frequency of appearance in people’s dreams is an index of their charisma.”
Obama’s successor has his own, highly polarizing brand of charisma, and Bulkeley predicts “many people over the next few years are going to have dreams and nightmares about [Trump].” Perhaps wary of the long nights that await them, the Obama dreamers I spoke with grew nostalgic as they revisited their sleeping encounters with America’s departing president. In Obama’s final days in office, they’re embracing the same outlook as a dreamer from Bulkeley’s site who once looked on in beleaguered wonder as Dream Obama bolted off down a shoreline filled with crocodiles: “I found a lot of things wrong or risky in the things he did. But he’s Obama, it doesn't matter.”