‘What Happened to Obama?’ Provocative NYT essay offers skewed view

Drew Westin: "When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem."
Drew Westin: “When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem.”

In a long piece in the Sunday New York Times, Emory University political psychologist Drew Westen tears President Obama a new orifice.

Referring to Martin Luther King’s phrases about “the arc of history” and its tendency to “bend toward justice,” Westen informs Obama that “the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise.”

That acidic but trenchant phrase — “capitulation cast as compromise” — connects viscerally with the frustration of many lefties, myself included, with the arc of recent history in Obama’s several high-stakes showdowns with the Republicans in Congress, including the one over the debt ceiling deal that concluded last week (while I was on another planet, and, by the way, I’m back). That deal seems to have disgusted pretty much everyone.

Westen’s insights into “What Happened to Obama” (for that is the title of his Times piece) may have a ring of additional authority because Westin’s previous most famous book — “The Political Brain” — is not a work of political science but of brain science. Westen presents himself as not just another frustrated liberal but as a scientist who understands the mysteries of the human brain and, most specifically, how phrases and tales told by politicians work upon the brains of the masses.

Westen wishes that Obama had told — more often and more clearly and starting with his inaugural address — a story of heroes and especially of villains. High up in the piece, Westin lays out the missing paragraph from Obama’s inaugural, thusly:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”

“A story isn’t a policy,” Westen explains. “But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

“And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

“But there was no story — and there has been none since,” writes Westen.

“When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.”

The passage that connected most directly with my own Obama frustrations was the bully stuff, as in:

“With his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.”

But you should probably also read a pushback piece against Westen’s analysis, from a lefty who shares the frustration but not the explanation. This smart version, by Jonathan Chait of the The New Republic, pushed me from an Obama-damning mood post-Westen back to where I’ve been for about two years — frustrated by the daunting obstacle course that the American system and the American electorate sets up for any political leader trying to accomplish bold change. Writes Chait:

“Westen’s op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen’s telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama’s failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.

Westen locates Obama’s inexplicable failure to properly use his storytelling power in some deep-rooted aversion to conflict. He fails to explain why every president of the postwar era has compromised, reversed, or endured the total failure of his domestic agenda. Yes, even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan infuriated their supporters by routinely watering down their agenda or supporting legislation utterly betraying them, and making rhetorical concessions to the opposition.”

Chait’s agenda is not to apologize for Obama’s alleged fecklessness, but to locate the history of the Obama years more squarely within the context of the challenges faced by a president. Chait also, by the way, completely takes apart Westen’s version of history, both the history of FDR and the New Deal (which Westen held up as a model) and even the history of the Obama years:

“The most inexcusable factual errors in Westen’s essay have been documented by Andrew Sprung, who points out some of the occasions Obama has used exactly the kind of rhetoric Westen accuses him of refusing to deploy. Westen is apparently unaware, to take one example, that Obama repeatedly and passionately argued for universal coverage. The fact of his unawareness is the most devastating rejoinder to his entire rhetoric-centered worldview. If even a professional follower of political rhetoric like Westen never realized basic, repeated themes of Obama’s speeches and remarks, how could presidential rhetoric — sorry, “storytelling” — be anywhere near as important as he claims? The clear reality is that Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately. Even Drew Westen.”

Lastly, as if I haven’t given you enough assignments, if you click through to the Chait piece and can spare the five minutes, he’s embedded a clip from the Rob Reiner/Aaron sorkin film “The American President” in which President Michael Douglas takes to the podium to tell the truth as he sees it.

What think?

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Comments (46)

  1. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 08/08/2011 - 11:24 am.

    The fact that Westin and Chait offer different viewpoints of the same issue is no surprise — reasonable people can have differing views. But regardless of any apparent errors that Westin makes in his piece, that doesn’t make Chait’s version the correct one. It’s up to the reader to decide.

    Still, on the issue of Obama supposedly arguing “repeatedly and passionately” for universal healthcare coverage, even if he did (I don’t recall), he was obviously not trying to get it, because he was working behind the scenes with Big Pharma to prevent it.

    That’s what we commonly call a liar and a hypocrite.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/08/2011 - 11:41 am.

    Chait is exactly right. I was reading Westin’s piece and thinking “wait…what? I remember…” The problem is that the public is largely short-sighted, and generally has a short attention and memory span. We will always remember that which fails to please us over that which makes us happy. Liberals will quite angrily point out that the President immediately gave up the single payer system. Except that he didn’t immediately give it up. While Republicans will rage about how they weren’t even allowed to have a say in “Obamacare.” Which is an outright untruth (in fact, they were given unprecidented time and even a SPOTLIGHT at the bargaining table).

    The thing is, we don’t ALL forget how things played out, but politicians are quite happy to play on our short-term memories to reinforce our incorrect notions…and the media does nothing to investigate and point out these lies, because they ARE lies, and not simply mis-remembrances, when the political machine uses them this way.

  3. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 08/08/2011 - 11:45 am.

    Read both pieces, Eric, and I tend toward Westin’s view. Although his intent is not to cement a perception of disappointment about Obama, there may be some such effect.

    Many elements make for a successful presidency. One of the most important is the EFFECTIVE use of an incumbent’s power to persuade. It is here that Obama has fallen very short.

    Westin does not say it in so many words, but he understands that for most of us, perception is reality. Marketers certainly understand that. Many Republican candidates and elected officials understand it. Few Democrats seem to understand it – perhaps because they do not wish to believe it is so. Whatever.

    A political axiom applies: the win goes to whoever controls the terms of the debate. Obama has not been controlling the terms.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/08/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    Good pieces, both, Eric – yours and Jonathan Chait’s. Glad to have you back.

    I do think Westin is not entirely off-base. The “bully pulpit” is something Obama HAS to use because his opposition influences the media in ways that were unthinkable when FDR – or even Ronald Reagan – was president. I’m inclined to agree with Westin that Obama has not used that “bully pulpit” often enough, nor has he laid responsibility for truculence and irresponsibility at the feet of the current Know-Nothing right wing nearly as often, or as pointedly, as has been deserved.

    That said, Chait is also not off-base. This isn’t yet a dictatorship, or even, not quite yet, an oligarchy. The President doesn’t get to make up policy and institute it by fiat, any more than Mark Dayton gets to solve Minnesota’s budget issues by himself. Obama has had to deal with Republicans in both the House and Senate who – in almost any other context – would be labeled as childish, petulant and immature, not worthy of holding positions of responsibility. They would also be – correctly – labeled as corrupt, a label that unfortunately applies to members of both parties, in both houses. The current version of the Republican Party at the national level is not a “loyal opposition.” It’s a group of self-serving (perhaps more accurately, wealth-and-big-corporation-serving) politicians, supported by a significant number of people who paid no attention in their high school civics classes, and know even less now than they did at age 16, and financed by an amazingly small group of very wealthy people doing what wealthy people have done since “wealth” as a concept was invented – they’re insulating themselves, getting as close to a free ride as they can manage, and having others do the heavy lifting for them.

    On only a couple of occasions have I seen in Obama’s presentation the sort of passion I’ve wanted to see from a former community organizer. Unless he’s completely forgotten his own roots and history, blinded not by science, but by comfort, he should still remember what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the tracks, with very little income and no safety net over the yawning chasm of genuine poverty and deprivation. I want to see more of that remembrance and less of the smooth and professional politician. Only when the Republican Party abandons its current infatuation with malevolent stupidity will I be very much interested in a “balanced” approach to our problems, but as Chait points out, and as every student of civics ought to know, the President doesn’t get to dictate. S/he can only exhort, persuade, plead and argue. It’s Congress that passes the laws, and right now, Congress is dominated by the wealthy, the corrupt, and the willfully ignorant.

    Until that changes, I relish Michael Douglas’ 5 minutes on-screen. Not surprisingly, Douglas makes Ronald Reagan look like a 2nd-rate actor, which Reagan was, even when he actually occupied the Oval Office.

  5. Submitted by Kim Millman on 08/08/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    You and Chait are wrong or at the very least seriously misguided.

    “…George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan infuriated their supporters by routinely watering down their agenda or supporting legislation utterly betraying them, and making rhetorical concessions to the opposition.”

    This statement is misleading and lacks the proper context. As Westen put it, Obama fails to provide the proper narrative and villan. Bush and Reagan always had a narrative and didn’t lack for villans. They were constantly inventing new villans under the larger umbrella of liberal Democrats. Both their narrative and their mythical villans worked to easily produce much of what they were asking for. How do you explain exactly how George Bush-n-company got the country to follow him and his bad ideas? He had a story and villans. Reagan had many villans, including the welfare queens and commies. He also painted a picture of what life would be like without the villans.

    Democrats area supposed to praise Obama and give him credit for “repeatedly and passionately” argued for universal health care coverage? On the contrary, he spoke two different languages on health care; one to appease Democrats during the campaign in sending dog whistles out about single payer systems and public options and one to appease his real constituents, Wall Street and health insurance companies to mandate coverage to ensure greater profit for private health insurance companies in insuring the healthy while the tax payers subsidize the sick and the elderly. Not what Democrats had in mind. He didn’t lift a finger to argue the public option. However, he sure stepped in to whip the vote in the U.S. Senate to block the Drug reimportation bill, an infringement on his pharma and Wall Street Constituents. He sure didn’t hesitate to whip the vote on the taxes for millionaires and billionaires.

    On every issue that mattered to me, a Democrat, he has either done a complete 180 or failed to lift a finger to fight. That cannot be compared to either Reagan or Bush and their Republican constituents. Yes Reagan and Bush supporters were frustrated because they didn’t get everything they wanted, but they did get a lot. Democrats have nothing with Obama.

    I for one can no longer compromise my principles and vote for somebody that demonstrates complete disrespect for his own campaign promises and his so-called base. For Democrats to never institute consequences for such behavior means every Democratic candidate knows they can say with conviction, as Rahm Emanuel told the President, “F the base, they have no where else to go.” I’m here to tell you we do have somewhere else to go – – voting for any candidate other than Obama.

  6. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/08/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    Kind of a complicated article, but to slice through it all, progressives have been mightily disappointed by Obama, and it has hurt the country. He stood on the sidelines for the health care debate. He caved on the Bush tax cut extension. He backed off closing Guantanamo. He created a malaise with his party which I beleive was a factor in the disaster of the 2010 election.

    There’s more, but in the end, I guess just a sad feeling of “bait and switch” from what we thought we were getting when we beat our brains out to get him elected in 2008.

  7. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 08/08/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    While I’m not sure that an alternative Obama who did not have the weaknesses Westin describes would have had unmitigated success turning America into a liberal utopia, I am not so quick to brush aside his criticisms as Chait is. That his stories lack a villain is a real problem. It plays in with the media into the whole false-equality, it’s-everybody’s-fault narrative. And when it’s everybody’s fault, it’s nobody’s fault, and when nobody did it, you can’t fix it. And so those who are responsible walk away laughing and the rest of us will face it again. This is a legitimate criticism which Chait does not address.

    Did George W. Bush and Reagan get everything they wanted? Certainly not. But they actually pushed the country rightward. Obama, on the other hand, us pushing the country… rightward as well. As Nate Silver pointed out, Obama’s budget proposal during the debt-ceiling debate, in terms of its cuts-to-new revenue ratio, was to the RIGHT of the average Republican.

    And did “Obama repeatedly and passionately [argue] for universal coverage”? Well, his opening-round bargaining proposal was right down the middle, a strategy sure to end with… a lack of universal coverage.

    So while I know that the president isn’t all powerful, I don’t really buy the paternalistic you-starry-eyed-kids-just-don’t-get-the-reality of Chait’s response.

  8. Submitted by Michael Fraase on 08/08/2011 - 12:14 pm.

    Oh, please. Chait is an apologist. If President Obama *really* wanted universal healthcare, he wouldn’t have taken the single-payer, “Medicare-for-all” option off the table before the debate even began.

    And that’s just the top of the list.

    If President Obama had governed like he campaigned none of us on the left that actively worked and voted for him would be nearly as pissed off as we are.

  9. Submitted by Michael Fraase on 08/08/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    Rachel, the “Obamacare” which which we ended up has deep roots in long-held Republican ideas. And the single-payer option was absolutely rejected before the first roundtable discussion.

  10. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 08/08/2011 - 01:02 pm.

    When someone wins, someone else has to lose. Then the losing side simmers and waits for their opportunity for winner-take-all. It’s tough on a country’s growth to ricochet from one extreme to the other every few years.

  11. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 08/08/2011 - 01:45 pm.

    Obama cooked his own goose when he refused to push any policies that enacted any pain on the middle class. Everyone got us into this mess, and everyone (not just the rich) are going to have to pay to get us out.

    The die was cast when Obama didn’t even have the spine to propose an energy policy that included a modest increase in the gas tax. After 20 years without an increase, and reduced consumption due to more efficient vehicles, we don’t even take in enough gas tax money to pay for on-going hiway construction.

    I was one of the many independents who enthusiastically voted for change and competence, and got neither. I’m not making the same mistake twice.

  12. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 08/08/2011 - 01:58 pm.

    Obama showed what a coward he was long before he was elected president. When he was in the state legislature in Illinois, whenever something controversial came up for a vote, he voted “present.” Leftists knew he had Jello where his spine was, but they voted for him anyway. Now leftists are crying in their cups because Obama won’t do anything but campaign for re-election. I’m glad I didn’t vote for him.

  13. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/08/2011 - 02:00 pm.

    Adding to Power’s comments, I would list the current economic trumoil we see in the stock market today, the erosion of America’s credit rating, and the loss of respect internationally for our economic prowess as a direct result of the Tea Party influence. Re the debt ceiling debate which is at the heart of this turmoil, it has been raised continuously for decades (7 times during the Bush adminstration alone). There is only one factor this time that is different — only ONE: the insertion of the Tea Party members in our House of REpresentatives. They have been a major factor in this chaos, and it may well be intentional. At any rate, they had little regard for the ramifications, and frequently so stated.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/08/2011 - 02:06 pm.

    The problem is that the president engaged in a policy of appeasement of giving into the demands of black mailers. What he learned is that those demands don’t stop, they simply become become demands for more, becoming ever more unreasonable over time.

    In retrospect, he shouldn’t have caved in on the extension of the Bush era tax cuts. And he shouldn’t have ever negotiated with Republicans over the debt ceiling. He should have simply extended, or in the alternative, let the chips fall where they may. As it happens, what was really at stake wasn’t the credibility of of America itself, and that was largely lost when the deal was made.

    Oh well, live and learn.

  15. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 08/08/2011 - 02:14 pm.

    @Mike Schumann

    Apparently you don’t seem to recognize the indisputable fact that the so-called “middle class” has been shrinking for the past 30 years (real wages declining), yet still paying more taxes as a percentage of income than the rich, whose income has been increasing, while their tax rates go down.

    The latter holds true for corporations as well, who collectively have more than $2 trillion in cash, yet aren’t creating any jobs, despite their constant refrain (and that of Repubs and Tea Totalers) that tax cuts create jobs.

    The gas tax can’t be raised because neither of those two crazy parties would go along with it; they have an irrational belief that government spends too much and taxes too much, even though without those taxes, we can’t spend money on the very infrastructure projects we need.

    In order to spend, you need revenue. Repubs and Tea Totalers can’t have it both ways, and neither can you.

  16. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/08/2011 - 02:22 pm.

    The Westin piece was the saddest, truest thing I’ve read in a long time. I don’t need a Lexus search of whether Obama argued for the public option or a lecture about how speeches don’t matter. If you want them, they matter.

    I have a pretty good memory and I don’t remember Obama working very hard to make the case about who broke the economy. I still have no friggin idea what he believes about national security and Guantanamo, etc. Would it kill him to tell us? Would it kill him to fight for people like Elizabeth Warren. Would it kill him to talk like Elizabeth Warren?

  17. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 08/08/2011 - 02:55 pm.

    @Myles Spicer

    “There is only one factor this time that is different — only ONE: the insertion of the Tea Party members in our House of REpresentatives.”

    Actually, there’s another factor: we have a black President.

    Despite their protestations, there’s still an awful lot of racism and bigotry in this country, and that includes the Repubs and Tea Totalers in Congress.

    How else do you explain reps from the southern states referring to Obama as “boy”?

  18. Submitted by scott cantor on 08/08/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    Here is Obama “arguing passionately” for universal coverage in his one and only national televised speech on health care, not to the people but rather to Congress on Sep 9, 2009:

    “There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s — (applause) — where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

    “I’ve said — I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch. (Applause.) And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months. ”

    Yeah. “There are those on the left…”. You were supposed to be one of “those”.

  19. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 08/08/2011 - 03:58 pm.

    Sigh. Why is it that things always have to be one OR the other? Broadly, both Chait and Weston are right.

    Yes, Weston is coming on a bit strong and should not ignore the President’s accomplishments or very strong talk of the dangerous GOP policies, but by the same token, Chait’s dismissal of an entire branch of science is just silly.

    Cognitive science has been used successfully in marketing for many decades so it’s not some new, esoteric concept dreamed up by Lakoff and Luntz. And the GOP’s skillful use of it has been so successful it has people voting against their own self interest and routinely believing things that are not true.

    Framing issues will not alone win elections or guarantee sensible policy making, but it needs to be a part of Democratic strategy. Ask a voter what a Democrat stands for and if they can think of anything at all they’ll cough up the GOP caricature. That failure is on Liberals and our electeds.

    It is disheartening to hear the President and his people repeat GOP frames when talking about issues. Example: The President used the phrase “living within our means”. A fine idea but one central to GOP propaganda that implies everything hinges on extravagant government spending.

    In fact, we as citizens (not a King, church or House of Lords) are allowed -empowered by our Constitution- to decide for ourselves what we want to do as a country. We may differ as to what the priorities are but if we decide we need interstate highways and Medicare then we can have those things and we should be happy to pay for them. That’s a point that, if it had been made effectively over the last couple of decades might not seem so alien to so many.

  20. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/08/2011 - 04:10 pm.

    “I have a pretty good memory and I don’t remember Obama working very hard to make the case about who broke the economy.”

    Obama is a consensus builder. You have to be to get things done in Washington. And you don’t build consensuses by blaming or attacking people whose support you need. The problem with that is that assumes that there are things that can be done or said that will secure cooperation from those in opposition. That you can find common ground, or that people will act in their own self interest. To varying degrees, those assumptions proved untrue when dealing with Washington Republicans. Their first priority was always his political destruction and they were willing to sacrifice the interests of their constituents at least in order to achieve that goal. The president was slow to appreciate the implications of that, and maybe many others of us were as well.

  21. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/08/2011 - 04:36 pm.

    Right now, there just isn’t a solution. The president has just blinked too many times to have retained credibility. His opponents have enough negative power to block any attempt to get us out of this crisis and have no scruples about using it. They are clearly willing to damage the economy for their own political advantage.

    Looking back, I do think the best thing to have done would have been to refuse to negotiate with the tea party on the debt ceiling. The president should have just used is disputable authority to raise the debt ceiling under the 14th amendment, and no doubt, fought the inevitable impeachment proceedings. But that’s not the sort of thing consensus builders do. And it done by people who believe that their opponents share common decency, another hope and expectation of Obama’s that has been disappointed.

  22. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 08/08/2011 - 05:08 pm.

    Dr. Westen frames the picture exactly right: President Obama has either forgotten or failed to generate a narrative that powers his Administration. As Dr. Westen points out in his “missing paragraph” to the President Obama’s inaugral speech, “Wall Street gamblers” and “conservative extremists” created this recession and remain comfortable amidst the rubble. The President needs to say that over and over again! Instead, the Republicans get to fram the debate with imaginary debt ceiling crises, size of government hysteria, that we have a “spending problem” and, that we must protect the “job creators” from tax increases or there will be no jobs.

    The Republican leadership in the House and Senate are grown-up boys girls and can well stand the rhetorical heat that the President could boil them with. Similarly, Wall Street will survive a presidential scolding (a few indictments would also be appreciated) from time-to-time.

  23. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/08/2011 - 05:29 pm.

    “And you don’t build consensuses by blaming or attacking people whose support you need.”

    You need to have a story about what happened, as Westin wrote. The story of how tocome up with a solution has to have a villain,like it or not. You can’t pretend the villain doesn’t exist. After all, Obama is the villain of a right wing narrative. Right now there is only one narrative — that Obama is a socialist (lol) who wants to spend money. If you give the voters two narratives, they can at least choose which ones make more sense.

  24. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 08/08/2011 - 06:02 pm.

    Perhaps Obama’s reluctance to speak out strongly is a matter of definition: he interprets “bully pulpit” as meaning he would have to pound the podium and hurl epithets at the Republicans (which I sometimes feel like doing), and of course, his temperament wouldn’t allow such behavior, much as the R’s deserve it.

  25. Submitted by will lynott on 08/08/2011 - 06:14 pm.

    A question has bothered me for some time now: do the wingnuts REALLY want to be the last ones standing in a scorched earth wasteland? And do they really think they can pull that off?

  26. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/08/2011 - 06:19 pm.

    Miles (#14) –I believe that Michele Bachman and the other Tea Party members in Congress to be far more ideological than some more moderate Republican members. And I think that observers worldwide are afraid less of our debt than of their promise not to raise revenue no matter what.

    If we do not increase revenue, especially by letting the Bush tax cuts expire, we will be hard pressed to prevent cuts to necessary social spending or to invest in anything that will prevent our economy from shrinking until it really IS small enough to drown in the bathtub.

    What could save our economy, and perhaps that of the world, is the Progressive Caucus’s “People’s Budget,” created at about the same time as Paul Ryan’s disastrous cut-fest but ignored by the media, the Congress and the Administration, while the media praised Ryan’s “serious effort.”

    The People’s Budget would reduce the deficit by $5.6 trillion over ten years. It requires spending cuts of $1.7 trillion, increasing revenue by $3.9 trillion, and investing $1.7 trillion in clean energy, infrastructure, broadband, housing and R&D. AND NO ONE WOULD BE HURT (although we’d have to remove ourselves from our several wars and close most of those bases we have around the world).

    The economy would return to life. Businesses could create tens of thousands of jobs without the government giving them tax credits or cash with which to create them (that does NOT work).

    My guess is that if investors around the world saw the US adopt The People’s Budget they would re-invest in our manufacturing sector, having lost the fear that our economy was on its way into the Tea Party Toilet.

  27. Submitted by Mark Nathanson on 08/08/2011 - 07:41 pm.

    The title of the book-“The Political Brain”-answers any and all questions: Obama is a politician. If Martin Luther King had sought some political office, that would have made HIM a politician-although he probably would have been a more principled one Of course we usually approve of a politician’s principles when they mirror our own-I didn’t like Jesse Helms, but he seemed to genuinely believe in the principles he espoused.

  28. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/08/2011 - 08:36 pm.

    “When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker …”

    When his teleprompter is working.

  29. Submitted by Terry Ott on 08/08/2011 - 09:13 pm.

    In my case, I was leary of Obama for two reasons.

    I felt he hadn’t demonstrated the kind of organizational leadership that would be required in a period of great challenge to the country. That he was willing to try was admirable — the “purple state” stuff, but I was unable to discern where he had built and demonstrated the considerable skills required for that enormous challenge.

    It was also troubling to me that so many different people seemed to have disparate opinions of what he really, deep down, “stood for”; my theory on that, which I admit is a bit superficial, is that he wanted to win based on personal attributes and to keep his options open in terms of what he would do when in the Oval Office. It seemed to me he tried to keep things kind of “fuzzy” and enigmatic. Maybe no one agrees, but that’s how I read it.

    But I supported his election with those reservations. Certainly, I thought, he can’t be “worse enough” to be a failure.

    Once in office, in my opinion, he showed his lack of experience in three ways:

    (1) He seemed to believe that because people liked him (a lot) and gave him a decisive win he could move quickly to implement things that Joe Sixpack was only partially on board with; thus he went charging off, legislatively, with too small a fraction of us fully supportive. Maybe we would have become moreso, in time, getting to know him better and trust his judgement. But, he needed to make his case (stories or not) convincingly WHILE he also attended to pressing matters where he was forced by events to be effectively reactive. There was a little too much “I/we know better; trust us.”

    (2) He seemed to be content to delegate the health care mission to people who were NOT that popular/respected overall, namely Democratic congressional leaders and other party insiders. It was the expedient way, I suppose, but you rarely have a mulligan so you really have to KNOW that what you put your force behind will carry the day with the electorate. I don’t like the legislation much for what it DOESN’T do, and I think more time MIGHT have allowed for going directly to the people with his plan — which should have been more all-encompassing.

    (3) He, again in my opinion, then got the “stimulus” very wrong. “Never the let a crisis go to waste” were not his words, but they came from the White House, from his closest advisor. I think the stimulus, as it played out, violated most every tenet of how the private sector could be encouraged to get the show on the road. Biden was all over the map as to whether what they were doing was going to actually “jump start” things, or instead be part of a longer term nudge. I wrote down a lot of ideas at the time (it’s my nature) that I thought would be more focused, immediate, creative, measurable, and temporary — which to me is what a stimulus is supposed to be all about. Left to defend a program that was none of those, Obama’s White House started to look ineffective and off track, and frankly “political”. I called BS on the whole “shovel ready” narrative from the first second I heard it. Stuff doesn’t work that way in the public sector when money comes down through various hands and the game is kibbutzed by those on the receiving end.

    There is more, of course, including financial regulation and cap and trade and on and on.

    But it all comes back, in my opinion, to Barack Obama being not quite ready and not savvy enough. There are times when he seems to lack the scar tissue that turnaround executives need in order to weather the rough and tumble environment they are sure to encounter.

    Does anyone think that Obama may have expected NOT to be the Democratic candidate but instead thought he was doing a “practice round” that would lead him to a job like VP or Attorney General, or another key strategic role that would position him to move up the ladder in subsequent elections? He certainly is young enough to have thought about that logical progression. I wonder that to this day.

    I wish I had heard him say, with conviction, that his GOAL was to be a one-term president because of all the sacred cows he would slaughter and all the special interests he would piss off while doing what needed doing for the American people. Heck, I think one-term Presidents can do pretty well in their “afterlife”, and don’t really NEED the grief that comes from being in charge for 8 years.

  30. Submitted by David Willard on 08/08/2011 - 10:53 pm.

    Hopey Change guy had TWO YEARS to do a lot of stuff. Obama did. Most of it was NOT conducive to growing the economy. Now we get a partay monster with a lot of fund-raising and blame thrown in for good measure. Arrogant? No, he’s just the same as all the academic weasles on this site, never having to make a payroll or live in the real world of American Capitalism. Please, people, you knew what you were getting when you supported this guy. He’s the Professor you had a crush on. he’s not ready to run a bookstore, much less a country, and neither are any other academics who deal with theory..

  31. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/08/2011 - 11:09 pm.

    There is a HUGE flaw in Westen’s article. CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS! If you want to lay blame, look there first.

    Even for the short time the Democrats had 60 members in the Senate, could you name even 10-15 solid liberals? I could name more than twice that many Conservadems or “Centrists”. Conrad, Baucus, Nelson, Nelson, Lieberman, Warner, Feinstein, Lincoln, Landrieu, Pryor, etc., etc.

    I certainly have my problems with Obama, but when you have a Senate and House full of Democrats that spend most of their time either hiding under their desks or actually undermining a president of their own party, you’re not going to get a boatload of liberal legislation. Or any defense of liberal principles. Do you think they’d have his back if he started using more liberal populist language? And why aren’t they out there bashing the opposition? That’s not the president’s job. That’s for the VP(where’s he been?) and Dems in Congress.

    Do you think Bush was doing the dirty work? That’s why he had Cheney and GOPers in Congress.

  32. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/08/2011 - 11:15 pm.

    Westin makes a good point. I think however you get to the real meat of the matter if you substitute “Democrats” for “Obama”. Westin isn’t just describing Obama, the Democrats have been missing a story since Kennedy. Obama is just a Democrat’s Democrat at the end of the day. Many of us were hoping he’d be more than that.

  33. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/08/2011 - 11:26 pm.

    There are a number of problems with blaming Obama’s problems on a failure to communicate the right narrative. The biggest is obvious. He simply cannot stand up and say, ‘We told you that Whatever-Whatever bill would wipe out regulations that would keep traders from being too risky’. He can’t do that because it didn’t happen. He can make blanket claims about lack of regulation but he can’t point to the ones that caused the meltdown. And he certainly can’t claim that Dems tried to fix it before it happened.
    The next biggest problem here is that there has been no lack of Dem voices blaming the economy on Bush and the Republicans. The public buys this to some extent since it happened on Bush’s watch but they didn’t elect Obama so that he could complain about what he got. They elected him because he said he could fix it.
    And that leads to the next big problem. He laid out a plan to jump start the economy and it didn’t work. He came into office and wanted a gigantic stimulus. He got it and it didn’t work. He keeps promising jobs and they aren’t out there. Obama simply doesn’t understand what creates jobs. He is working the Keynesian playbook and it has failed him. No speech in the world is going to simply make the public ignore that.

  34. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/09/2011 - 06:32 am.

    “He can make blanket claims about lack of regulation but he can’t point to the ones that caused the meltdown.”

    I’m pretty sure they know exactly what regulations went missing that would have prevented the meltdown. Mortgage derivatives, for instance. Selling things you bet against. etc etc.

    “…but they didn’t elect Obama so that he could complain about what he got.”

    You can’t fix the problem if people don’t hear from you what created it.

    “He came into office and wanted a gigantic stimulus. He got it and it didn’t work.”

    You haven’t been paying attention, Peter. This entire critique is based on the idea that the the stimulus was too small (and porked up) and that Obama settled for that because he didn’t fight for what was necessary but unpopular.

  35. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/09/2011 - 06:44 am.

    What he needs to do, both to get anything done (and to get reelected) is to explain to the center why something needs to be done.

  36. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 08/09/2011 - 08:12 am.

    Mr Willard’s little outburst includes two of my pet peeves. One, the assumption by right wingers that only they have ever had to meet payroll or run a business and therefore only they can understand the economy. Young man, there is no incompatibility between progressive values and business. In fact encouraging a healthy community with educated workers, good roads, enforceable contracts and the like guarantees healthy businesses over the long term.

    The other fun assumption is that everyone who disagrees with him is an academic -“pointyheads” as my Tea Partay brother in law says. No Mr. Willard just smart citizens who look beyond talk radio and pick up a magazine or book once in a while.

  37. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/09/2011 - 08:30 am.

    @33:Obama is not “working from the Keynesian playbook” as you put it. I challenge you to find any Keynesian economist (Paul Krugman, Brad deLong, Stiglitz, Galbraith) who would support that statement. Every Keynsian economist who’s spoken about Obama has said the stimulus was too little and too cautious to make any impact in creating jobs and shortening the recession. That was in 2009.

    You will not hear any Keynesian economist agree with Obama or Congessional leaders that we have a “debt crisis” or a debt limit crisis (except for the fake one created by the outrageous demand of the Tea Party). Keynesian economists rightly point out we have a jobs/employment crisis and an economy faltering from inadequate aggregate demand. Obama has tied his hands with his Grand Bargain BS from using the very tools needed to pull this country out of a recession. That is NOT out of the Keynesian playbook. There were few Keynesians in his administration to begin with, those have long since left and the ones that have the President’s ear, like Geithner, are the very ones whose policies caused the problems we continue to suffer from.

  38. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/09/2011 - 10:21 am.

    I am thinking payroll tax cut. Republicans oppose it for reasons that contradict their basic ideology, so they are weak on the issue. It’s immediately stimulative, and I think it can be popular. It’s an issue the president could barnstorm the nation on.

  39. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/09/2011 - 01:11 pm.

    The biggest problem with the politics in this country now is the modern day Republican Party. We are about the only democracy in the world that doesn’t have a Parliamentary democracy. Even when we invade a country and try to make them a democracy, they all end up having a parliamentary system, i.e. Iraq, Japan, etc. Under a parliamentary system, the ruling party has complete control.

    We have a constitutional democracy. First, that means only two major parties, whereas most parliamentary systems have multiple parties. We also have a Senate with the filibuster(not a constitutional right), supposedly to protect the rights of the minority. Unless it’s abused. See current GOP.

    A constitutional democracy with 2 main parties also means it’s necessary to compromise to get anything done(except on rare occasions when a party has huge majorities(Dems in the FDR years and JFK, LBJ years). With no compromise, there is gridlock and the country can’t address its problems.

    The GOP has turned itself from a political party to a cult of sociopaths that allow no member to veer from their corporate hard-right agenda.

    If one of the two major parties practices traditional constitutional democracy and the other party practices an unbending parliamentary-style of governance, democracy will fail. It’s happening right now.

  40. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/09/2011 - 08:30 pm.

    The stimulus arguments somehow remind me of people praying for rain. If you prayed and it rained then obviously it worked. If you prayed and you didn’t rain, then you should have prayed harder.
    Nice work if you can get it.

    #35 Paul, do you remember Dems arguing against mortgage derivatives prior to 2008? I don’t but I may have missed it. Nor do I remember them arguing against many of the things that created the housing bubble, like interest only mortgages and the like. Again, please correct me if I’m wrong on this. And if it can’t be corrected then the villain narrative can only work so far.

  41. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/09/2011 - 08:37 pm.

    Jon #38, so the stimulus wasn’t Keynesian? Can you explain philosophy it came from then?
    From what I can tell Krugman did indeed believe that it was too small. He thought it would bring unemployment levels to around 7.5%, a number that the Obama administration would dance in the street for today. If he has explained why it underperformed so much, I can’t find it.
    The bottom line is that Obama wildly overpromised and is now paying the price.

  42. Submitted by Thomas Olson on 08/09/2011 - 08:47 pm.

    Chait, a “liberal hawk” along with most of the New Republic crowd, has been carrying water for Obama since long before the election. The fact that he’s a cheerleader doesn’t make him wrong but it does mean he’s predictable. I do think Westen has the better of it. During the campaign Obama said, correctly in my view, that he needed citizens to push him and congress for “transformative” change. It has to come from the bottom up. True. But it needs leadership too and BO quickly showed that he himself wasn’t leading anything transformative–Afganistan, Guantanamo, health care, tax rebates as a bit part of the stimulus, and so forth. There was nothing for Obama’s huge pre-election constituency to get behind so aside from true lefties there’s no pressure. What’s more, Obama never asked for help and instead dissed his base. And Westen is correct when he says Obama can’t pinpoint the villians. Yesterday he blamed the default fiasco on “gridlock.” That’s blaming the parties equally. Why not say the blame falls where it does–on Republicans. Even if it weren’t true, but it is, that’s not a nicety that bothers Republicans or ever bothered a guy like Reagan.
    Reagan created long term change by constantly blaming regulation, the New Deal, Democrats, Liberals, Communists and praising only Friedman free markets. He also wielded presidential power by choosing to enforce or not enforce regulations and through loyalist appointments. Obama invites the fox to the coop over and over again. Even the addled Reagan would understand the folly.

  43. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 08/10/2011 - 10:34 am.

    Gosh, you guys! You must really be itching for a President Perry. Keep it up—and that’s what you’ll get.

    The zeal with which progressives are bashing President Obama amazes me. This is someone who has faced unprecedented, united, implacable opposition from the other party since the day he was elected. He got handed a bunch of awful problems that were decades in the making—two wars, a consumer economy based on credit, not rising wages, that came down like a house of cards, a deflated housing bubble–plus he had to navigate the treacherous waters of America’s central sore spot, race, as the first black President. I would never claim that he has been perfect but progressives should be pleased that he has managed to enact health care reform, which eluded Presidents for 50 years, ended DADT, redressed the Lily Ledbetter case through legislation, rescued good manufacturing jobs in the auto industry, and more.

    Anyone who expected Obama to be a liberal firebrand was not paying attention. He is and has always been a center-left pragmatist. The central theme of The Audacity of Hope is the search for common ground in our political life and the need for Americans to find those things which unite rather than divide us. A politician, yes, but someone who is remarkably idealistic—perhaps to a fault—about the possibilities of working together toward common goals. Expecting him to scapegoat and point fingers, as Westen does, is not realistic; it’s not who he is, and when he does indulge in even mild blaming, it comes across as inauthentic and even petulant—kind of like Pawlenty pretending to be angry.

    I suppose I sound like a Kool-Aid drinker, but I would implore progressives to think about the alternatives to Obama in 2012. Indulging in fantasies of a Democratic challenger from the left, or self-righteously sitting out the election because Obama hasn’t delivered liberal utopia in two and a half years, is a great recipe for a Perry (or someone worse) inauguration in 2013.

  44. Submitted by Paul Scott on 08/10/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    Peder, you are changing your point to suit your purposes. Obama can in fact blame the meltdown on lack of regulations; you had disputed that earlier. As to whether he can blame those particular missing regulations on the GOP is a different question. But the chutzpah, indeed, of trying to dodge the fact that reducing regulations on the private sector is the cornerstone of one party in particular, as to which, I will let you figure that out.

  45. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/10/2011 - 07:20 pm.

    Paul, I’m not changing my point at all. The meltdown would have happened under a Gore administration, or at least that is my belief because there was no one at all looking to plug the holes that were there. Frankly, I’m not convinced that we’ve plugged them yet.
    If your argument is that regulations of some sort could have prevented this and Republicans are usually opposed to regulation, therefore Republicans are at fault here, well, maybe you should take a logic refresher. You should be able to point at something more concrete.

  46. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/17/2011 - 10:47 am.


    If Obama wants my vote he has to earn it, it’s that simple. He’ll not earn it by betraying the constituents who got him elected (i.e. “f*&K the UAW)or ignoring the agenda he pretended to champion (a government option in health care). Nor will the apparent flat out stupidity of thinking he can get compromise from the Republicans sway my vote in his direction. I’m supposed to worry about Perry? Well I just got Perry’s budget despite having Obama in the White House. Obama is just now contemplating putting up a fight, in his third year in office? You’re not entitled to my vote, and if you afraid of Perry tell it to Obama, not me.

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