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.