In what seems like a bid to definitively cement the perceptions of progressives disappointed in Obama, psychologist Drew Westen, a student of the alleged power of stories to shape political perception, has put together his own master narrative about Obama -- a merciless tale of presidential FAIL. It's a quadruple-length op-ed (over 3000 words) on the front page of The New York Times' Sunday Review section -- a rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland.
Westen is a good storyteller. There is real force to many of his charges. But modeling what he says Obama should have done, he tells a simplified morality tale -- highly selective, with a clear villain, and in some points demonstrably false. He makes copious use of political cliches about messaging that fail to take into account the degree to which economic conditions shape audience reception of a politician's message. Founded on the alleged timidity of the 2009 stimulus, his story fails to engage the question of whether Obama could have got a larger stimulus through Congress. And in the end, it devolves into an ad hominem attack with recourse to cheap psychologizing (notwithstanding Westen's protestations of scientific detachment) and unfounded impugning of motive.
Most of the indictment is familiar. Obama hedges and trims his positions (most notably the too-small stimulus). He avoids conflict and has made a fetish of compromise ("fetish" is Michael Tomasky's word, from a more focused and I think better grounded critique of Obama's conduct of the debt ceiling negotiations). It is hard to know what he stands for. And -- here is psychologist Westen's chief contribution to the indictment --he has failed to tell the story of the Great Recession in a manner that will advance effective progressive solutions.
The substance of Westen's attack boils down to Krugman Krugman Krugman: the stimulus was too small. Westen conflates this original sin with an alleged rhetorical/political sin that begs the question of how, or whether, Obama could have gotten a large stimulus through Congress. The implication is that he could have done so by attacking the villains:
The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not half-acted.Question: how exactly would indicting his predecessors more forcefully have helped Obama get a larger stimulus through Congress -- particularly the Senate, where he needed a couple of Republican and a handful of nervous conservative Democratic votes? Question 2: where's the evidence that tax cuts "had already been shown to be inert"? The argument for them was that they went into effect more quickly than never-shovel-ready infrastructure projects -- though there was indeed a structuring/messaging problem in that most Americans seem never to have recognized that they got a tax cut. Question 3: does Obama get a little credit "for having saved the country from another Great Depression"? How about the measures that more or less worked -- saving the auto industry, recapitalizing the banks?
Westen next rolls healthcare reform, saving the banks, and the possible pending failure to extend unemployment insurance benefits through 2012 into his failure narrative. Much of the argument consists of ignoring policy successes; much else, of lambasting Obama for not making arguments that he did, in fact, make. Let's take this part of the narrative (one complete paragraph) line by line, with Westen's text in italics:
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.A propaganda machine of unprecedented intensity and reach was pushing exactly that lie.
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.”Obama, April 14, 2009:
Now, some have argued that this recovery plan is a case of irresponsible government spending; that it is somehow to blame for our long-term deficit projections, and that the federal government should be cutting instead of increasing spending right now. So let me tackle this argument head on.Westen:
To begin with, economists on both the left and right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending. You see, when this recession began, many families sat around their kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. So do many businesses. That is a completely responsible and understandable reaction. But if every family in America cuts back, then no one is spending any money, which means there are more layoffs, and the economy gets even worse. That's why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand. And that's exactly what we're doing right now.
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.Obama, Sept. 9, 2009:
Our collective failure to meet this challenge -- year after year, decade after decade -- has led us to the breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans. Some can't get insurance on the job. Others are self-employed, and can't afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer. Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or too expensive to cover.
We are the only democracy -- the only advanced democracy on Earth -- the only wealthy nation -- that allows such hardship for millions of its people. There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.
But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem for the uninsured. Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today. More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you'll lose your health insurance too. More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day.
One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.
Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.
And Obama, moving toward the healthcare reform endgame, Feb. 25, 2010:
And that it's not possible for our Republican colleagues to move in the direction of, for example, covering more than 3 million people. It's not possible to move more robustly in the direction of dealing with the preexisting condition in a realistic way. It's not possible to make sure that we get people out of a high-risk pool and get them into a situation where, as Tom Harkin put it, healthy people, young people, rich people, poor people, old people, the sick, everybody is part of a system that works. That, I think, is the concern.Westen:
Having said that, what I'd like to propose is that I've put on the table now some things that I didn't come in here saying I supported, but that I was willing to work with potential Republican sponsors on. I'd like the Republicans to do a little soul-searching and find out are there some things that you'd be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance and dealing seriously with the preexisting condition issue.
I don't know, frankly, whether we can close that gap. And if we can't close that gap, then I suspect Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are going to have a lot of arguments about procedures in Congress about moving forward.
I will tell you this, that when I talk to the parents of children who don't have health care because they've got diabetes or they've got some chronic heart disease; when I talk to small business people who are laying people of because they just got their insurance premium, they don't want us to wait. They can't afford another five decades.
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.Obama, again on April 14, 2009:
Of course, there are some who argue that the government should stand back and simply let these banks fail – especially since in many cases it was their bad decisions that helped create the crisis in the first place. But whether we like it or not, history has repeatedly shown that when nations do not take early and aggressive action to get credit flowing again, they have crises that last years and years instead of months and months – years of low growth, low job creation, and low investment that cost those nations far more than a course of bold, upfront action. And although there are a lot of Americans who understandably think that government money would be better spent going directly to families and businesses instead of banks – "where's our bailout?," they ask – the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth.Westen:
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 when that's the dominant reality, it's difficult for the party in power to break through. Westen, cont.:
And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.
Did Westen miss the bloody negotiations of December 2010? What Obama did drag home, contrary to expectations and admittedly at great price, was a 13-month extension in unemployment benefits. I admit to disappointment that he didn't get another round in the awful debt ceiling deal. But 2012 is not here yet. Democrats may yet manage another extension in the trench warfare to come this fall.
I will further admit that demonstrating that Obama said the right thing on occasion does not mean that the administration's messaging was effective. In fact I feel my ignorance with regard to the mechanics and optimal frequency of presidential communication -- and the extent to which an economy that never really recovered shaped reception of message from the oval office. Westen's attack is not without substance. It's just so one-sided, it doesn't really help us to make a midstream assessment -- which is almost surpassingly difficult in any case.
Let's look now at Westen's core allegation -- that Obama failed as a storyteller, and by failing himself to recognize the villains in the meltdown, failed to craft policies that would fix the economy. That failure, according to Westen, began with Obama's Inaugural Address:
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 story Westen thirsted for was a tale with a clear set of villains. He writes the speech he wanted to hear:
"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. "It's quite true that Obama did not tell this tale in his Inaugural Address, and rather soft-pedaled it in ensuing months (though tell that to the thin-skinned kingpins of Wall Street). But he most definitely did tell a tale in this speech. It was a variant of the tale he had told throughout the endless campaign, the tale that got him elected. It was a framing of U.S. history as a cycle of trouble and triumph, in which the people periodically overcome their divisions and push their leaders to find new ways to foster shared prosperity:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.The case for measures that would foster shared prosperity was the core of Obama's election-season bid to move the country's political center left. The president speaking here is the person Americans elected, for better and/or worse. It's true that the villains in the story are effaced, rendered abstract -- because Obama wanted to work with them. I too have been driven half-mad in recent months by Obama's refusal to go to war with the GOP, his willingness to negotiate on their terms (though he has not shrunk from highlighting the pathology in their passion for tax breaks for the wealthy and Draconian spending cuts for social programs).
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness....
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.
But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.
Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.
The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth [a list of goals in education, energy and infrastructure follows]....
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.
But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
But we are not at the endgame yet. The scorecard on deficit reduction and stimulus will not be complete until the end of 2012 (if then). As we approach the midpoint between the elections of 2010 and 2012, it's worth keeping in mind that a) Obama did pull off substantial backdoor stimulus at the end of 2010, and b) he has basically promised not to let his term end without providing for a minimum of $800 billion in new revenue over the next ten years (too low a figure, but that is in effect what he's always said he wants). And in a fearsomely stressed and politically polarized country, Obama's relentless refusal to demonize an extremist opposition may yet win the day by means of contrast. Perhaps it will prove in the long run to be the political equivalent of the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, whom Westen uses as a stick to beat Obama:
When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.Let's not forget that many African Americans at times regarded King as an appeasing sellout, much as many progressives now see Obama as one. The Panthers and the Nation of Islam were more satisfying to many. King called out his adversaries, but he never shrank from engaging with them. Neither has Obama -- though the results have not always been what his base could have wished.
In his denouement, Westen stoops to unfounded allegations about character and motive that almost amount to character assassination: Obama's stories lack villains because he has to keep raising campaign dollars; he has pivoted toward deficit reduction to appease "independent" voters; it is impossible to know what he really believes on core issues. There are elements of truth in all these allegations -- as there are for any national politician who manages to get elected and re-elected. In fact, though, Obama has always been perfectly consistent and up-front about his pragmatism, his willingness to try what works, his acknowledgment that "the other side may sometimes have a point." Many of his positions have always been to the right of those of the Democratic base. He said during the transition period in fall 2008 that the long-term deficit was the problem that kept him up at night; on tax increases, he has hewed to his 2008 promise to raise taxes only on the wealthiest 2%; he disappointed followers with his support of the revamped FISA law in 2008; and he has always been against "dumb wars," not "all wars."
Obama is indeed a Rorschach that's hard for supporters to assess. But so is any president in mid-stream, especially during a time of protracted crisis. Westen's stark narrative satisfies his own preference for tales with unambiguous villains. But it's really of no help to any progressive struggling in good faith to understand Obama.