Obama on the 'Ideological Fixation' at the Heart of the Congressional GOP

How a 19th-century idea explains the drive for Obamacare repeal.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In 19th-century psychology, the idée fixe was understood as a close relative of monomania and obsessive-compulsion, often accompanied by symptoms of hysteria such as amnesia or anesthesia, the inability to feel.

Idées fixes developed secondary to some sort of trauma or dislocation, and could even take the form of reenacting a past action that was once appropriate but now, in the new out-of-context context, had became bizarre. The idée fixe, as such, was a neurotic symptom. "The elements in it are persistence in or out of relation to its apperception (or context) and invariability in a new context or under a new stimulus," according to the chapter on "Névroses et Idées Fixes" in Oxford University Press's Mind, Volume 9, which in 1900 described what was originally a French concept for an English-speaking audience.

I bring this up because of President Obama's harsh words for congressional Republicans during his news conference Friday, which garnered such headlines as  "Obama torches GOP", "Obama Slams GOP" and so on. But what has grabbed headline writers most is the phrase "ideological fixation." "President Obama: GOP health care pushback an 'ideological fixation'" trumpeted Politico.

The accusation, of course, is a linguistic descendent of that old psychoanalytic concept, so useful to students of literature in discussing, say, Captain Ahab and the whale in Moby Dick, and Inspector Javert's hunt for the fugitive Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

"Now, I think the really interesting question is why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail. Their number-one priority," Obama said. "The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care; and presumably, repealing all those benefits I just mentioned -- kids staying on their parents' plan, seniors getting discounts on their prescription drugs, I guess a return to lifetime limits on insurance, people with pre-existing conditions continuing to be blocked from being able to get health insurance."

"The notion is simply that those 30 million people, or the 150 million who are benefiting from the other aspects of affordable care, will be better off without it. That's their assertion, not backed by fact, not backed by any evidence," he added later in his remarks. "It's just become an ideological fixation."

There is, in congressional Republican efforts to repeal Obama's health-care law, a measure of political irrationality that writers from David Frum to Jeb Golinkin have pointed out. So too has Mitt Romney, who this week warned against shutting down the federal government in an attempt to defund Obamacare, even if he agreed with the ultimate goal of getting rid of it. "I'm afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the next elections, and the people of the nation would not be happy," Romney said. "I think there are better ways to remove Obamacare."

In short, opposition that began as a strategic decision in 2010 has persisted as a repeated resistance to reality, one with potentially negative consequences for the GOP. Overheated talk, wrote Frum in 2010, "mobilizes supporters -- but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead."

That's as true today as it was then.