Drew Westen: “What Happened to Obama?”
I’ve always been a big fan of Dr. Drew Westen’s work — in fact, it baffles me that his fundamental message, to tell a story, and tell it with emotion, is news enough to so many on the left that he can make a nice secondary career repeating and honing it — but I think his latest essay in the New York Times, “What Happened to Obama?” may be the best work of his non-academic career.
To some degree, he repeats criticisms Obama’s heard from his left countless times — the stimulus was too small, FDR wasn’t afraid to rhetorically take on Wall Street, etc. — but the piece isn’t concerned with policy so much as with politics or, to use a word I generally try to avoid, “messaging.” As I’ve said before here and elsewhere, I think far too often we ascribe our chosen politicians’ failures to messaging when faulty policy or stubborn externalities are more likely to blame. But that doesn’t mean that importance of messaging is a myth, especially not when it concerns the role of the President. Because, as Westen (and Clinton, and Reagan before him) understands, the President’s political role in America today is primarily that of national narrator.
And, somewhat bafflingly, it’s at this central task of Presidential leadership that Obama has failed most clearly:
It was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.
Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”
When Barack Obama? rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. […]
But there was no story — and there has been none since.
Skeptics might now fairly ask what story Obama should have told — or, better yet, when such storytelling would have actually been of use during the past 3 years. On this score, I think Westen does his best work, outlining specific moments in the first term where real communication with the electorate would have truly benefitted the President and his party:
To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan? was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.
At this point I’ll just strongly recommend that you click over and read the whole piece, because otherwise I’m liable to block-quote the whole thing entirely.
But if I could add anything to what Westen writes here, it would be this. Sometime last week there was a brief little discussion among some bloggers about who is the most effective politician in DC today. Unsurprisingly, both Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan argued that it was Barack Obama. What struck about both of their defenses is the utter lack of recognition of the President’s role as a rhetorical, political figure. Look at how Drum’s argument side-steps this issue entirely, as if Obama’s job was to be Legislator in Chief. Sullivan, meanwhile, doubles-down on Drum’s defense, but also credits Obama for a string of political coups that either 1) happened before he assumed the Presidency; or 2) have little to do with anything Obama’s actually said or done.
On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he’s gotten over this, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that’s hardly an open-and-shut case.
What’s more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.
I think Obama is easily the winner and currently stupidly under-rated – and drowned out by all the noise in the conservative-media-industrial-complex.
Here are the political accomplishments: defeating the most heavily favored party machine in decades (the Clintons) while actually bringing his biggest rival into his cabinet, where she has performed extraordinarily well; helping to cement the GOP’s broad identity as extremists opposed to compromise; entrenching black and Hispanic loyalty to his party; retaining solid favorables and not-too-shabby approval ratings during the worst recession since the 1930s. 44 percent of the country still (rightly) blame Bush for this mess, only 15 percent blame Obama.
On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression?; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.
Besides the killing of Osama bin Laden, none of what either man list above is something I’d imagine many regular American voters — people without the time or inclination to spend hours per day surfing blogs and memorizing talking points — are likely to find compelling. Especially when, as Westen writes, “they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job.” Obama beat Hillary Clinton three years ago to win the nomination? Oh. Good for him. And he’s ensured that GM and the banks are reaping profits on a level perhaps unseen in modern history? Cool. It would be even cooler, of course, if that led to anyone getting hired, of course; but — hey — at least his favorables are “solid.”
And let’s just say that it might be a bit short-sighted to credit Obama with bringing blacks and latinos into the Democratic fold.
(If you want to see a refutation of the policy-based defense, Adam Serwer is your best best. I think he’s mostly right, although I doubt Obama’s accomplishments on this front as quite as vulnerable as Serwer seems to believe.)
What irks me the most about these defenses of Obama — especially those so founded upon a list of esoteric half-measure policy accomplishments that have little to no bearing, at least yet, on the public’s day-to-day lives — is that they give credit to Obama for legislation that he purposefully divorced himself from until all but the final stages. His decision to do so is, to my mind, admirable, evincing an accurate understanding of the separation of powers and the role of the Presidency in the Constitutional system. But if Obama is at once going to stand on the sidelines and let Congress do its job and legislate, how is it fair to then absolve him from significant blame for failing in his political duties while heaping praise on him for legislation that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid shepherded through their respective chambers?
In any event, the real point is that the story of how Dodd-Frank ended up having a (watered-down) version of the so-called Volcker Rule is not the stuff campaign ads are made of. Indeed, Obama himself understands this, recently telling those on his reelection team “not to get too bogged down in detail.” He asked them to focus on telling a more general tale of “values”; the problem, of course, is that without a compelling and overarching narrative, these disparate values seem like little more than impotent good intentions. Especially when you’re still struggling to pay the bills.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)