Sunday, August 07, 2011

A lover of fairy tales casts Obama as villain-in-chief

This one is going to hurt.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.
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).

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.


  1. Thank you for the excellent rebuttal. I saw a lot of complaining and was wondering if someone would pick apart the seductive, smooth, and very inaccurate words Westen gently waved before a slack-jawed audience.

  2. read what matt stoller wrote recently connects the dots and explains whow Obama's failures in the "Governor-in-Chief" aspect of the Presidency are the tell....

  3. Good post. There are times when Obama and the White House have not communicated well but Westen largely hears what he wants to hear. Westen's solutions are awfully simplistic, and his political analysis is as well. (Filibuster is not mentioned. And it is more difficult these days for any politician to get as large a captive audience these days as in the days when there was far less media fragmentation.)

    At the end of the day, Barack Obama somehow got himself elected the first black president as well as a bunch of significant legislative accomplishments (highly doubt any of the millions who get healthcare coverage will think Obama is bending the arc backwards) using the exact rhetoric Westen decries. The candidate who came closest to using Westen's rhetoric was probably John Edwards but he could never expand his base of support within the Democratic Party electorate (let alone the general electorate).

  4. I like your work, Andrew, but this is not a good rebuttal. I don't want to go through it point by point as you did Westen because I know that a blog post is not quite a dissertation and thus the truth can be obscured sometimes with an overzealous focus on detail.

    I'm just going to say that block-quoting disparate moments in which Obama, in dry, technocratic, and professorial language, lays out the reasoning for his policies (which, certainly in the case of loaning capital to banks on the theory that they'll send it back to Main St. with the "multiplier effect" has been proven to be wrong) is not at all a refutation of Westen's central critique: Obama did not tell succinct, easily transferable, and repeated stories. You're a smart man and an often able blogger, so I find it somewhat baffling that you think a long, bloodless summing-up after a 5-hour health care reform summit (that precious few people watched) is somehow the equivalent of what Westen's looking for. This is absurd.

    Otherwise, I don't understand why you feel the need to so passionately and with some pique denounce Westen for making observations as to the personal and political motivations of Obama's moves as of late. It's not significantly different from what you or countless other bloggers have done; most definitely, to call it "character assassination" for Westen to reach the conclusion that Obama is playing for the independent vote (when there have been many articles, most notably the recent effort from Elizabeth Drew in the NYRB, with sources saying exactly the same) is to define-down "character assassination" to such a degree as to render it a meaningless aspersion.

    I sympathize with your desire to protest against what you see as unfair attacks on the President; but for all your talk of good faith, I don't think you approached Westen's (admittedly imperfect) piece with quite as much grace and levity as this post would imply.

  5. I welcome his denunciation of Westin's defeatism. It is based in lies and willful misreading of the truth.

  6. Without going into the arguments, let me say that Prof. Westen summed up exactly what I've been feeling emotionally as a Democrat. Lately I've been talking with friends about actually joining the Greens, and the reason is just what Mr. Westen says: I want to belong to a party that SAYS PROUDLY what it stands for. Elias Isquith's point about "a long, bloodless summing-up" is exactly right. We need more -- even those of us who are proudly sensible and rational and have been Democrats for 30+ years.

  7. I read part of it...expecting Obama to turn into a Roosevelt was inconceivable to me. Big Daddy FDR did do much, but we didn't climb out of the Depression until WWII pulled us out.

    Obama is a brilliantly simple man. He does what he has to do. He is measured, and not a reactionary. I don't think we will see the wisdom of what he has done in this 4 years, but in the next 4, which he will attain.

  8. I was annoyed when I read the NYT article- thanks for the rebuttal.
    The Left in the US gets it wrong time and again- even when we manage to elect a President who understands them in our conservative country.

    Try some optimism, Lefties.

  9. Andrew: You go ahead and keep drinking the Obama Kool-Aid.

    Many of us refuse to be Obama's Useful Idiot. We shall therefore, make our appropriate choice in 2012.

    Obama, just like his soulmate Bill Clinton, is no friend of the working class or progressives (see NAFTA).

    I am done voting for Democrats who have no courage or core beliefs.

    I am done voting for "the least worst" and "the lesser of two evils."

    And yes, where is the bailout for those who are struggling to find Full-time employment and provide for our families?

    Nah, no thanks, I am done with the charade that is the two party system.

    America is a Plutocracy with a political class that spouts vacuous rhetoric about
    its alleged "Democracy."

  10. The big problem with Obama is not that he loses the fight, is that he does not seem to want to fight at all.

    Take the stimulus bill; okay, maybe he could not have passed a bigger one, but he could certainly have tried (and made the case for it). It is not like if a large one had failed he couldn't go back with a smaller one. The bottom line is that you cannot know what you'll get unless you try.

    After all the repubs seem to have done pretty well with this approach.

  11. Good! I found myself depressed after reading Westen's piece today in the NYT and his attack on the President. But as I began to reflect, it occurred to me that someone like Westen likely doesn't meet conservatives at parties and he probably doesn't have any evangelical friends. He's never tried to get something done on a city council or a school board, where political purity gets you no place fast. Simply put, Weston is in his own echo chamber, no less disingenuous than the FOX news version. Thank

  12. I appreciate the thrust of this response, but it seems to me that you're more trying to shift blame for the phenomenon Westen notes--the neutering of the progressive message and the repeated progressive defeats over the last two years in particular--from Obama, than arguing that the defeats themselves haven't happened. Maybe ironically, you seem to have a much bigger problem with the messenger here, and the devices he uses, than his core message.

    While Westen and his ilk can come across as flim-flam men or worse, the very fact that Obama based his campaign (of which, full disclosure, I was an early and extremely enthusiastic supporter) upon a story about the promise of America and the vital role of the public sector in fulfilling that promise, makes his failures of communication almost as dismaying as the losses they've helped enable.

    On the one hand, he hasn't ever really come out, clearly and consistently, for liberal priorities. Yes, he made the speeches excerpted above, and they were often quite powerful, but for whatever reason, they didn't impact the debate. On the other, his posture as the last reasonable man, or only grownup in the room, doesn't work when the people across the negotiating table are essentially fanatics who find reason itself the coin of the Devil.

    The result is that he demotivates those who agree with him and comes across as weak to those who aren't paying very close attention. I particularly think Westen is onto something when he suggests that there was a contradiction implied in the campaign between Obama the (progressive) reformer and Obama the candidate above politics. He blasted Bill Clinton's triangulation, and I cheered when he did it--but at least Clinton sometimes realized there was no alternative but to fight. Again and again, Obama's clear distaste for sharp differentiations, and his seeming lack of confidence that he can take issues to the country and win the battle for public opinion, has led him to lose fights he should win... leaving him in worse shape for the next one.

    I'm not taking my toys and going home. I'm not voting third party next year or anything like that. But I hope like hell he realizes soon that with this set of opponents, the only way he'll win is to fight.

  13. This is an example of the Left/Progressive part of the electorate setting up their entirely predictable circular firing squad.

    I think they actually prefer being out of power. That way they can whine and complain and moan and not have to try and actually do anything.

  14. Oh,yes, by all means vote for your Nader-like alternative to Obama. How'd that work out for the working class last time? Oh, I remember: George W. Bush.

    I'm a 61 year old life-long lefty and to the left of Obama, but I can't see anyone doing a much better job in this country right now than he is doing, given what he's facing. And I am truly and fully tired of these amateur wannabe presidents and their armchair politics. My whole life I'm dreamed of the Great Lefty who will turn the country around, but, folks, not this country, not at this time.

  15. How much did a terrified DNC pay for this rapid response? The childish name calling and innuendo found here and in other outraged rebuttals across the web have about them the odor of twenty-something white house intellectuals frantic to protect their franchise and the legacy of a man now clearly shamed before his countrymen. These posts all read like obituaries prepared with care well in advance of the death. In its broad outlines Mr. Westen's critique is factually unassailable, all the huffing and puffing above to the contrary notwithstanding. Debate it through the primaries and see what happens at the convention.

  16. Obama interrupted his campaign in 2008 to return to Washington DC to support passage of the Wall Street bailout, which failed ib the initial vote in the US House of Representatives. He knew what the bill was about.

    Obama appointed Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to shape and implement economic policy. He knew who they were.

    That's the beginning and end of anything you beed to know about him. Every chance he had, he gave up the interests of the people for those of Wall Street.

    Forget the excruciating details. He's a Republican at heart who governs from a position 180 degrees away from what he claimed that he believed. He is that most uncomfortable of modern presidents - the winner of the long con, a man who deceived the public, as evidenced by his unmasking, on every major issue during his presidency. The NYT pulled punches. They should have just called him a fraud.

  17. He is overstating the significance of rhetoric in terms of getting liberal policies passed. Though even you point out that Obama's willingness to negotiate on GOP-created grounds is at best frustrating. And I'm not completely convinced that doesn't matter in terms of what policy ends up being passed.

    But what I liked about Westen's article is at the end where he tries to give some ideas as to why Obama has governed like he has. I think he hits on some solid points there.

    On thing him or anyone else hasn't mentioned is Obama's foreign policy and national security. He faces less legislative opposition there than he does on domestic policy. Yet he has been very left of center in many ways. This doesn't have anything to do with rhetoric. But it speaks to the question Westen asks, which is basically 'why isn't Obama more liberal?'. And I think its easier to guess at when it comes to domestic policy than it is foreign policy.

  18. This sickness is what is so infuriating about the so-called "Left." Certainly, Obama willfully contributed to expectations building about what he could accomplish, and he should have known that it was like handing an alcoholic the keys to the liquor store -- inevitable that a thousand writers with access to podiums such as the NYT would eventually circle back to their old additions at the first blush of disappointment and denounce Obama as a counter-revolutionary. Consequently, it's easy to recognize the intended audience of these articles -- less swing voters in key states, more people the author expects to see at dinner parties.

    Myself, I am a liberal deep in Texas, so my perspective may be different. Far from New York City, the intensity of the forces gathering against this cerebral and even-handed gentleman were apparent from the start. I have the folders full of chain mails from family members as supporting documentation, the only surprise is that it took nearly a near after inauguration for the radical right narratives, laundered by Fox "News," to gain any traction. While many of Obama's qualities resonate deeply with me -- the academic detachment and nuance, to start -- he does lack the sharp political instincts of Clinton and the first-hand experience of the warped culture of the Christianist right needed to deflect their attacks. To this end, I was grateful that Rahm Emanuel served as Obama's Lieutenant, ready to bloody his nine knuckles and grimly twist the necessary screws (with a smile!), keeping Obama's white gloves as pristine as his rhetoric. Rather than rejoice at Rahm's departure, I think many of this year's failures are a direct consequence of force reduction at the White House.

    With few reservations (FISA), I remain deeply proud of the traditions and actions of the Democratic Party. I will pull the lever every time until the day I die (the metaphor of course must be updated for our current e-Slate voting machines...) The alternative is quite literally on my door step -- Rick Perry's "Day of Prayer," complete with Constitutional amendments against reproductive freedom and marriage equality. I remember in the year 2000 when the "Left" abandoned Al Gore, claiming the parties were the same, that Nader would send a message, etc. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised the narratives are being updated to tear down Obama (original thoughts are a hard currency.)

  19. I don't understand Dave's point at all. Keeping our troops pinned down in Afghanistan and Iraq year and year and desperately defending a bloated military budget that is bankrupting us is now a "left of center" foreign policy? Has the country really moved that far towards military imperialism as our default "centrist" policy? Yes, Obama has been a capable administrator and does have some real success stories. The problem people on the Left have though is that the President seems dangerously out of touch with the mood of his base. His successes have been real but only incremental. Like ACA, which is better than what we had, but not what people on the Left expected. He is not "our" leader, the way Bush was clearly the leader of the Right. You could argue that's a good thing for the country, it may be we are close to a civil war there is now so much hatred beween the left and right. Maybe a conciliatory President distrusted by both sides is the best solution for the country right now.

  20. As an attorney, what I myself largely do for a living is negotiate outcomes of disputed issues. I feel confident in saying that what I have seen of Obama's negotiating skills leads me to believe that he essentially has none whatsoever.

    The template appears to be the same:
    1) Immediately and unilaterally abandon your maximalist position while your intransigent opposition does nothing of the sort (single-payer, letting all Bush tax cuts expire, 14th Amendment, etc.)
    2) Allow surrogates and subordinates to drive and define your agenda and push it farther in the direction desired by the opposition (the execrable Max Baucus coming to mind, among others)
    3) Fail to even mount a credible SUGGESTION of "going to the mattresses."
    4) "Compromise" on ground extremely favorable to the agenda of your opposition.

    The point is not to go to war over everything you negotiate and escalate matters. The point is that you potentially COULD do this. You need to have a credible (even unspoken) threat on the table that you COULD invoke, for example, the 14th Amendment.

    Obama has conclusively, again and again, that he will NOT fight and that he WILL cave in when put to the test. There is no more damnable indictment to be made of him, in my opinion. All potential future opponents - foreign and domestic - will have taken note of this and will act accordingly.

    My joke after the debt ceiling surrender is that if I were Vlad Putin I'd bust off an e-mail threatening nuclear war unless Barry O hands back Alaska immediately. Perhaps an oversimplification there, but what in this guy's record suggests that he will do anything other than "compromise" with the most lunatic of demands?

  21. @ Jim
    Yes Jim unless you swallow wholly Westen's opinions (who has never met Obama and yet creepily try's to climb inside his head) than you must be from the DNC. Just because you have given up and are in full circular firing squad mode dont expect every other liberal to join in.

  22. Please! I am begging those of you who are Liberals... Look at what you're saying when you say that you are going "Green" or going "Independent". You are, in effect, saying that you don't care if the right takes power again. You don't care if women lose the right to make choices about their own bodies. You don't care if we start allowing CHRISTIAN prayer in public schools. Sh*t, let's just make it mandatory to BE Christian. That will solve everything, right? Remember when you vote that we could have Newt Gingrich for President. We could have Sarah Palin! Please vote your conscience in this next election. Please support the man who already told everyone that it would take more than two terms to fix what's wrong!
    Thank you for a fitting rebuttal!

  23. The values of the left are what we vote for. Westin's public horse-whipping of the President is shocking, especially at this moment in history. Obama told us from the beginning that it would be a long, hard battle. The force of the right is harsh, devious and deadly. Whatever your quarrel with the Administration, your first duty is to the values the left represents and to a party that can actually get elected. (If you want some other outcome, you MUST achieve campaign finance reform first.) Our country needs mindful, concise, thoughtful responses to crippling problems. These are the only responses that are viable against a vicious, brutal, kamikaze right wing. They want to maim and paralysis our (black) President. To desert the President as he works to out-maneuver a rampaging elephant is sheer stupidity. He is not perfect, none of them can be. What he has accomplished is beyond what any other President has accomplished in the same period of time. We need to have this guy's back, not cut him off at the legs. History will reveal Obama as the man who saved the union, not the man who preached purity in a time of great peril.

  24. " He said during the transition period in fall 2008 that the long-term deficit was the problem that kept him up at night..."

    Then why did he not propose a serious 'debt reduction' plan? What was he thinking in not coming behind Simpson-Bowles? Why did he have to wait to rebut Paul Ryan plan instead of putting a sensible plan in State Of Union address of 2011?

    More important - why did he not put at stake his presidency for getting a $4Trillion deal of debt ceiling with 3 is to 1 ratio of spending cut to tax increase? He would have said, he would veto any bill which does not confirm to this norm. On Aug 2, he would have said/executed - interest & debt are paid, next defense from the collected tax and then let Social Security and Medicare go unpaid. He could have created a special fund of $100B until Congress brings the correct bill and that fund could be used to payout for distressed cases - again coming through Congressional representatives to put salt in wounds of Congressional members. Resulting Public Fury would have forced GOP to mend their ways. Not for nothing willy McConnell was saying that public will come with pitch fork to GOP... Obama is so naive and simple incompetent in these matters.

    Point is there was clear path to take head on our debt issue, call the bluff of GOP and at the same time serve true interests of America on longer term. He blew that.

    His is not like Dr. King - he is simply following Daley play book of: spread legs, drop pants and let GOP do the rest ....

    Indeed he is disgrace to America. (I voted for him and I campaigned for him well before he was fashionable or was able to beat HRC.)

    Yes, his character is faulty. You do not get respect from your opponents by chiding them. You get it by showing willingness to risk everything what you have for the well being of Americans. He is simply reserved and worried about winning a useless second term while forgetting what he can achieve in the first one.

    Your defense is vain and empty.

  25. Krugman: "The real question facing America, even in purely fiscal terms, isn’t whether we’ll trim a trillion here or a trillion there from deficits. It is whether the extremists now blocking any kind of responsible policy can be defeated and marginalized."

    We can only do that together, as a solid front. And this time, we do it for bigger idea of the good of America, rather than the smaller idea of the success of the party.

  26. Sorry, the snippets above don't represent a consistent set of speeches Obama has given to defend stimulus spending. They're random little pieces he's presented.

    What he *could* have done is not voluntarily filled his own deficit committee with opponents of social security and medicare. He could have negotiated the deficit ceiling increase when extending the Bush tax cuts. He could have simply refused to negotiate budget reductions under the gun of a debt ceiling increase, and let the Republicans take the heat for whatever happened. He could have, as part of these negotiations over how to balance the budget, pointed out repeatedly that cutting the deficit now is guaranteed to increase unemployment.

    He's done none of these, despite the random collection of quotes above. For that matter, he came dangerously close to not getting his health care reform through, which is really the only thing beyond two nominations to the supreme court, that he's done that John McCain wouldn't have done.

  27. @Fritz Holznagel ~ That's hilarious. So just so you can feel better about yourself, you will vote Green! Awesome. Lets see how you'll feel after Bachmann or Palin wins. I'm sure you'll feel amazing because you voted for Green!

  28. Here's a simple truth: Instead of leaving us "fired up and ready to go" the President has left us burned out and ready to go home. Temperament is often more important than program and the President's misreading of "A Team of Rivals" has deflated the Progressives who sent him to Washington to do battle.

  29. @ Anonymous 8:51
    I absolutely agree. You don't build a party by starting at the top. If the Greens or some other progressive alternative to the Dems want to eventually take the presidency, they have to start by building a party at the local levels first. Once they've elected a few mayors, governors and legislators then they'll have a base. Otherwise it's just a pipe dream.

  30. Yes, a Bachmann or Palin presidency would be not be in my best interests. However, the likelihood of either winning the presidency is slim. When I vote, I select a candidate that reflects my principles and beliefs. Those who threaten with images of an apocalyptic America ran by Palin do the spirit of voting an injustice. Let me vote for a person I believe in rather than some conjured fatalistic political future.

  31. Great rebuttal. Thanks for writing. I too have been disappointed at time with Obama, but I also have come to appreciate the deep-seated, irrational hatred that he's dealing with from a large section of the country. Sometimes you have to hunker down and wait for opportunities to advance otherwise you'll get cut down by withering cross-fire. (Sorry, that's the Marine in me talking. Obama will however have to start getting more forceful and articulating where he wants to take the country better. I think he will do this over the next 12-18 months (an eternity in US politics)

  32. "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"

    this isn't so much "an unfounded allegation" as "the fundamental fact of american politics" but ok. as for the mlk stuff: i guess from the distance of 40 years "nonviolence" _sounds_ conciliatory and compromising and all those other things obama thinks Adults do, but mlk-style nonviolence actually meant an unbending and relentless and frightening resistance to adversaries armed with guns and dogs and fire hoses instead of just some ayn rand paperbacks and procedural gimmicks. if mlk had stood on the lincoln memorial steps and peevishly lectured the crowd in dessicated cliches about how serious mature adult compromise naturally required that _some_ diner counters be whites-only, because only children think they can "get everything they want", there might be a point of comparison.

    oh but michelle bachmann! booga booga booga! if she got elected, who knows what would happen -- we might solidify control of the legislature by the criminals who destroyed the economy, or enter another muddy and unplanned war, or never close guanatanamo, or indefinitely imprison and arguably torture american citizens, or quietly allow reproductive rights to buckle under sustained ideological assault, or approve pointless and destructive offshore drilling, or slash medicare, or keep calling federal services "entitlements", or maintain colossal tax breaks for plutocrats. what a nightmare america that would be. how can anyone even consider something so childish and irresponsible as not voting for barack obama no matter what he does?

  33. Obama has wrecked the Democratic brand for another generation, a brand 80 years in the making. 10 President Bachmanns couldn't come anywhere near to achieving that.

  34. So a couple of quotes showing lame (and usually late) attempts by Obama to explain his positions are all you have to refute Westen?

    Westen probably could've and should've pointed out that Obama made a few cursory attempts to explain his policies, but the main thrust of what he's saying is exactly right. Obama never tried to control the narrative, whenever he injected his voice it was reactive, rather than proactive. He let the GOP dictate the narrative on the stimulus, on health care, on the deficit deal, on Guantanomo, and the list goes on and on. Could he have gotten better outcomes had he fought for a different narrative? Thats a counterfactual we'll never know, but I don't even see how its debatable that he failed to do everything he could've to steer and shape the narrative.

  35. I think what you have ignored is "Look Forward, Not Backward" (unless yr name is Bradley Manning) where the Wall Street bankers who got us into a near-financial collapse (and who bankroll Obama Corp.) have gotten a free pass, and more, million-dollar bonuses to hose the American taxpayer *again*. The wars haven't stopped. They have expanded. Obama approves of whistleblowers? That's another nosestretcher. Obama has declared war against them. Don't watch the guys lips. Sure, you'll be mesmerized. Watch what he actually does. And you'll be appalled. See, Barack is a first class bullshit artiste, and a HUGE weakling who folds under pressure from rightwing wackjobs.

  36. Gandhian turning the other cheek would not have worked on Hitler and does not work on the Tea Partiers, who are emboldened by appeasement. Maybe a larger stimulus could not have gotten through Congress, but Obama could have taken the position that Congressional appropriations and the debt limit were in contradiction and that he would resolve it by ignoring the debt limit. He certainly did not have to rule it out in advance. Expecting some measure of reasonableness from fanatics is not maturity. It seems to me a characterological flaw that has a major role in making a failed presidency.

  37. Because issuing legally dubious debt just screams confidence to the market that would actually buy that debt. Have any of the people screaming "14th amendment" given any thought as to who would actually buy that debt?

  38. Once you understand the way our brains work -Lakoff and Westen - you begin to understand why the Obama/Emanuel initiatives failed to win popular support: it takes time, lots of it, with constant reiteration over and over and over and over... When has the President, in conjunction and in coordination with the Democratic Party, or anyone for that matter, broadcast a continuous and coherent message about his purpose, values and goals? You can't expect to harvest a crop unless you plant the seed in prepared soil.

  39. I have to agree with those who say that quoting from random Obama speeches does not refute Westin's point.

    Leaders move public opinion by framing things simply. They tell stories using clear, simple language. And they tell those stories not once, but over and over. Bill Clinton knew, and still knows, how to do this. Obama doesn't.

    Obama's problem is that he treats the American people as he wishes we were, not as we actually are. Most people only spend a few minutes a day paying attention to the news. Most people are not deep thinkers. Yet Obama continues to overestimate our capacity for understanding. He continues to idealize us. That idealization is not warranted, and it's letting his opponents win.

    Some people say, "Well, Obama will win in the long term." What long term? In the long term, we're all dead. People are unemployed *right now.*

  40. Regarding the stimulus, the issue is not how big a stimulus could have gotten through Congress. The issue is laying out your positions, regardless of whether you actually achieve them. Obama should have pushed for twice as big a stimulus as he pushed for. If he'd pushed for 2 trillion dollars and it had still resulted in the $780 billion it turned out to be, at least Obama would be on record as having pushed for a larger one. At least he could have said, "I pushed for a larger stimulus and Congress gave us a smaller one and it wasn't big enough. See? I was right."

    But all he can say is, "That's all Congress could have given us." And that's a lousy talking point.

    Sometimes you win by losing. But Obama didn't even fight.

  41. westen's column was racist--listing why obama's background makes him unfit to be president--there is SO MUCH unconscious racism on the left.'We told you colored boy to come in to the white house and kick a-s. Now you have not lived up to our expectations.' Oh the dreamy left--go eat your granola, lounge in East Hampton on youre deck and go on your 10th sabbatical at Amherst college--the scandalous faculty free-loaders.

  42. couldn't agree with you more. We've got to stop throwing stones Obama and the Dems and TRULY understand the power of what we're up against. This is NOT about the "lesser of two evils." It's about EVIL, and stopping it, rather than contributing to it by enabling it.

    Please check out my articles when you get a chance, e.g.,
    "Crusader Christianity, Tea Party Cult, & The Left"

    President Obama to Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand: "IN YOUR FACE!"

  43. So... progressives want to get rid of Obama because he tries to appease all Americans, and progressives only want him to appease the progressive base? Am I reading you guys correctly?

    I ask because you guys sound like Republicans now. I am concerned you'll start calling Obama a DINO, and launch your own Tea Party movement.

  44. Here's my view on this:

    First, you have to ask what does change voter attitudes. Because they do change substantially.

    Over the last 30 years voter, and conventional wisdom, attitudes towards government programs, endeavors, spending are far more negative than they were in the 30 years before that.


    So what?

    One Presidential speech and a little one week campaign aren't usually going to do much, just as a few TV commercials over a course of a week aren't usually going to do much to change attitudes about a type of consumer product. But what about an intense, focused, relentless, heavily funded campaign spanning five, ten, twenty, or more years? You think that can't have a substantial effect? Because that's what the Republicans have done over the last generation, and it looks like it did have a big effect.

    If a Democratic President and Party did take a long view and said we're going to relentlessly over years and decades, without backing down, convey to Americans that for many things government is good and this is why, these are the problems long established in economics that can happen with pure free markets. This is what an externality is – it's not complicated or difficult if explained well. People won't pay attention? You think marketers haven't run into that problem? You say it again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again…in different ways with different messengers. And I know something about marketing and sales and what it can achieve with effort, time, and resources. I have an MBA from one of the top business schools and have been a very successful salesperson and businessman.

    Another way? The vast power of try-and-see for good ideas. The New Deal revolutionized America not so much because of compelling speeches by FDR, as Jonathan Chait has shown, but because once it was finally tried, even in a very modest form, it eviscerated Republican lies and disinformation, and people saw firsthand it made their lives much better, so it was expanded and the Republicans could never get rid of it, and the try-and-see really changed attitudes.

    It is for this reason that Obama may have made a huge leap forward in our country and attitudes by finally passing even a relatively modest and flawed universal health care bill.

    The tremendous power of try-and-see for good ideas is the reason Democrats SHOULD be fervently against the filibuster, try-and-see's great enemy, and should have abolished it long ago.

  45. It amazes me how many ADULTS need POTUS to make them "feel good" and give speeches to make them "feel something" - my God, what a bunch of weak azz individuals. Drew Westen is the face of pathetic, need a daddy to tell me it will be ok, stupidness. My 3 year old neice is more mature than the "liberals" I see whining over POTUS needing to fight more or speechify more or whatever the hell optic they need in order to get up off their own azzes and do something for their community and thier kids future. It is absolutely appalling that grown azz people are this emotionally jacked up. President Obama is just too good for this lot. They deserve a President Bachmann.

  46. pull quotes from occasional speeches != repetition and evocative imagery

    you are actually making Westen's point for him -- despite all Obama's words, he didn't communicate

  47. There are too many progressives who think their political failure is just a communication failure. This is wishful thinking. No president in the last 35 years has had electoral success with the standard liberal agenda of increasing social spending and paying for it with increased taxes. The American people are not as math-impaired as progressives seem to be, since they know that such spending is unsustainable. I recommend that progressive thinkers get out a calculator and come up with a sustainable plan, or get out of the way of the people who are trying.

  48. here's a story for the Obama Presidency:

    The President as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, while GOPers make fun of his small stature. He will be re-elected, because this is the best, strongest, and richest nation on earth, and he saved it. Almost single-handedly. And he protected the Constitution as well.

  49. I hope you are correct, Mr Sprung. Frankly I think both your position and that of Drew Westin have much merit and I suppose we will have to wsit until Nov 2012 to see who was the most accurate.
    I'll tell you a story: Once upon a time there was this middle aged very self important libertarian leaning white guy who decided to take a chance on a relatively young, inexperienced but brilliant politician. In fact, in an action that was unprecedented for him, he who generally had nothing but withering contempt for politicians of both parties, he not only donated, but went out and campaigned for this guy. Imagine that, someone in his position, knocking on doors of strangers in an effort to get his newfound political passion elected. He really wanted change you see, and was tired of those he thought were stupid and rotten holding onto power undeservedly.
    Unfortunately his perception is now that of a good, decent man, who refuses to put the fight to his enemies, who seems not to hold any fixed position, and who does not seem to understand that you win elections by turning out your base, not fruitlessly caving in the hope of finding opposition votes that will never be there.

    Don't quite know how that story ends, either.

  50. An example of Obama's messaging is given by Dr. Frank Luntz in his recent book "Win - The Key Principles to Take Your Business From Ordinary to Extraordinary:" "The other common prioritization faux pas is to change messaging again...and again...and again. That's exactly what happened with America's health-care debate in 2009 and 2010. From the beginning there was a clear narrative from the Obama administration about why health-care reform was so critical to the national interest...Health-care reform was supposed to help our economy recover [from the economic downturn] by getting the skyrocketing cost of medical care under control. Then the story changed: it was now about our moral obligation to the people without health insurance. Then it became about deficit reduction. Then, well, no one really knows." (p. 113)

  51. We live in times where we don't have the luxury of moderation. Immediate action is required in many areas and is crucial. If this is Obama's modus operandi and character than I would posit that he is not the right man for the job at this point in our history.

  52. Everyone needs to read this - not only will you be able to see the WHY of Obama, but it will make you a better human being:

  53. Such a traget-rich post; where do I start?

    Your rebuttals of Westen are truly underwhelming, to say the very least.

    You showered this post with what Obama SAID.

    I don't care what he said; I care about what he did.

    1) War expansion in Afghanistan without clear strategy nor justification.

    2) Official stop on torture while in reality, the outsourcing went elsewhere, ie. Somalia.

    3) Claim executive powers of due process-free assassinations of American citizens on simple decision of the Executive. No judicial review, no trial, nothing. Tell me how "constrained by the opposition" this shit is!

    4) Whether you like or not, Obama (not doubt "helped" in spades by Geithner and Summers) saved the banks, not the banking system. BTW, what Obama said about necessity to open the credit spigot during a financial crisis is painfully obvious; what he refused to say is that other countries had the kahunas to fire the bankers responsible for this mess, liquidate the bad banks and sell the cleaned up product to the private sector ASAP. But MOST CERTAINLY NOT reward the bandits with even more obscene bonuses and power.

    5) Shall we talk about the sham that the HAMP program was, that is, another stealth bailout to the bankers instead of helping the homeowners? Everyone knows that Geithner BLOCKED a tiny 35 millions USD in legal help for distressed homeowners because the REMF believe that the faster you throw people out of their home, LEGALLY OR NOT, the economy will recover. Imagine that! An economy without fairness or elementary justice; that'll work alright! And Obama seems peachy-dandy with that. Did ya hear him protest much?

    Shall I continue?

  54. Here's a non-fiction story for you, courtesy of Obama:

    "The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions, however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s "debt deal" -- a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.

    Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness."

    All cuts no revenues; but hey! We just imagined that one, didn't we? Go ahead! Tell us it's only in our heads, huh?