Monthly Archives: August 2011

Straw Poll, Straw Results? Making Sense of Iowa

For presidency scholars like me, and for political junkies in general, today’s Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa is the equivalent of the first preseason football game: the results don’t matter, but it is a reminder that the real games are not far off and it gives some of the second stringers a chance to showcase their talents. In this case, the straw poll comes about 5 months before the Iowa caucus – the traditional start of the presidential nomination race.  It is understandable, therefore, why the media has descended on Ames in anticipation of today’s vote, and they will undoubtedly spend much of the day parsing the results.  Who beat expectations?  Who did not meet them? Who will drop out? What do the results tell us about the nomination race more generally?

 As with the results of preseason football games, however, you need to be careful about reading too much into today’s results. To begin, since its inception back in 1979, the straw poll has not proved very reliable in predicting the Republican nominee, nor even the winner of the Iowa caucus. Including 1979, there have been six of these events (they aren’t held when there’s a Republican incumbent president running), and only twice has the winner – Bob Dole in 1995, and George W. Bush in 1999 – gone on to claim the Republican nomination, and only three times did the winner also take the Iowa caucus (George H.W. Bush in 1979, Dole in ’95 and George W. Bush in 1999).  In several of these years the Republican frontrunners didn’t even bother to compete in the event.  Thus neither McCain nor Giuliani participated in 2007. Note that neither Rick Perry nor Sarah Palin will be on the ballot today.  Moreover, prior to 1999, it was easy for non-Iowa residents to participate, with the result that candidates bused in supporters to bolster their vote.  So we need to be careful about putting too much predictive weight on the historical record.

So, why pay attention at all?  Some argue that the event can help winnow weaker candidates from the field. In that vein, pundits are openly speculating that a poor showing by Tim Pawlenty may sound the death knell for his candidacy.  But while it is true that in past years individuals who did not do well in the straw poll dropped out soon after, these were candidates who were going to be culled from the race sooner or later.  Also keep in mind that the event typically attracts only 10,000 to 20,000 people, on average, and they must pay $30 to participate (this doubles as a Republican fundraiser) so it’s not a very representative sample of the Iowa voters.

In short, the outcome doesn’t tell us much about the overall support any of the candidates are going to have in Iowa, never mind in the nomination race at all.  Perhaps the only justification for paying attention is that it does provide some signals to party activists and fundraisers who may still be deciding on whom to support. In this regard, I would pay less attention to the actual results, and more to how the various candidates’ supporters justify their vote, as well as how the candidates try to position themselves ideologically.  Who are they attacking and why?  What does this say about their nomination strategy?  That’s why Thursday’s debate was in some respects more significant than today’s results – it clearly showed how each candidate wanted to position themselves ideologically in this race, and what policy views they would adopt.

So, what should we expect?  The first string team is either not playing (Perry, Palin) or has been on the field only for a quarter or so (Romney).  It is the second string – particularly Pawlenty, Cain and Santorum – that views this event as a chance to boost media exposure and maybe bolster their fundraising and support among activists. There’s less pressure on Bachmann and Paul, because they have a corps of supporters who won’t be swayed by the results here one way or the other.  Gingrich will likely continue along, espousing ideas, no matter what happens.  So pay particular attention to the media spin regarding these three – Cain, Pawlenty and Santorum.  Journalists need to justify their inflated coverage of this event, and for that purpose they will jump at the opportunity to write the political obituaries of the “losers” .

However, Romney’s support in the poll may actually be significant in another sense.  In 2008 he staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Iowa, but after winning the straw poll he finished a disappointing second to Huckabee in the caucus.  This time around he has tried to lower expectations for Iowa, and has not actively participated in the straw poll events.   With Perry entering the race (again) today, and likely to attract strong support here in the Iowa caucus, a bad showing by Romney today may lead him to reconsider his Iowa strategy altogether, perhaps by reducing his presence here in the run up to the January caucus  in order to build up his campaign in New Hampshire.

I’ll be on later tonight after the results, to talk you down from the ledge, or from the artificial high, as the case may be.

The Republican Debate: He’s in Pawlenty of Trouble!

 Heading into tonight’s Republican debate in Ames, Iowa, the self-appointed arbiters of candidate viability had declared this a make-or-break opportunity for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.   According to the media pundits, Pawlenty was barely treading water in the viability pool, and a poor performance tonight would likely put him under.  As I have noted many times before, in the post-1968, media-dominated nominating process, it is the press, aided and abetted by the party activists, who have now assumed responsibility for winnowing the candidate field. With the Iowa straw poll only two days away, tonight was the last chance for Republican candidates to convince the media arbiters that they deserve to live for another debate. Never mind that Saturday’s straw poll has no real meaning in terms of selecting delegates.  The media has deemed it an important signaling event, and the candidates must react accordingly.

 So what happened?  From my Ripton vantage point, here’s what I saw:  Pawlenty is in deep trouble.  He was on the offensive all night, focusing in particular on Representative Michele Bachmann, whose performance in the last Republican debate exceeded media expectations and therefore vaulted her into the top tier of candidates.  Pawlenty’s job tonight was to puncture Bachmann’s balloon.

In my view, he failed.  Although Pawlenty sought early on to take the high road – and even unloaded the best line of the night with his promise to mow the lawn of anyone who could document Obama’s economic plan to reduce joblessness (but he would only mow an acre of Romney’s lawn!) -  in the end he came across as a candidate desperate to take Bachmann down.  And she refused to take the bait, instead resolutely sticking to her principled arguments to rebut every one of Pawlenty’s attacks. She was particularly effective when asked about her statement that she believes a wife should be “submissive” to her husband. Say what you will about her command of history, Bachmann knows what she believes, and on the campaign trail consistency is half the battle. She wasn’t rattled by Pawlenty’s attacks, and in the end I think he came across as too eager to attack. He was political, and she was principled. It is unfortunate, but my guess is the media’s verdict will be that Pawlenty lost this debate and that his candidacy is in deep, deep trouble.

So, who did well?  Newt Gingrich was the clear winner in the immediate context of the debate.  He was focused, and came prepared to make the media – which has already tried unsuccessfully to winnow him from the field – as part of tonight’s story.  In that he succeeded, with his obviously prepared response to Chris Wallace’s so predictable question regarding the resignation of Gingrich’s campaign staff and his funding problems.  Gingrich effectively turned the tables on Wallace, making him the issue, much to the delight of the crowd. It was a reminder that pundits who have written him off forget that Gingrich has more experience on the national stage than any other Republican candidate, and that he was the man who orchestrated the Republican resurgence in Congress during the 1980’s.  For the younger analysts who only know him as a political pundit, it is easy to dismiss him as a buffoon. The reality is that he is a formidable candidate who has a wealth of governing experience.  Newt will not be winnowed before votes are actually cast.

If Newt won the debate on points, the bigger winner was Mitt Romney, who is obviously taking a page from Reagan’s 11th commandment to never criticize a fellow Republican.  You can abide by that commandment when you are the frontrunner.  Romney refused all night to get in the mud pile with his fellow Republicans and instead spent his entire time focusing relentlessly on President Obama. It is an excellent strategy, and at some point his fellow Republicans are going to have to take him on.  I still believe Romney is vulnerable on the health care issue and on the flip-flopping charge more generally, but that vulnerability is not likely to be exposed until the Republican field is narrowed and an alternative candidate appears.

Who might that be? The two frontrunners were not on the stage tonight.  One, of course, is Sarah Palin, whose strategy of not officially declaring her candidacy seems more prescient by the day. In another free publicity event, she took her bus tour back into Iowa today in time to inject herself into tonight’s debate, the latest reminder that she continues to garner free publicity without being subject to any of the criticism, nor financial restrictions, that declared candidates must endure.  And to think that when she resigned as Alaska’s governor, the “experts” deemed her political career over.  Instead, it turned out to be a brilliant move.

The second frontrunner is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has all but announced his candidacy, and whose formal announcement that he’s entering the race may come this Saturday – not coincidentally timed to detract from media coverage of the Ames straw poll.  Although tonight’s debate participants stated that they welcomed Perry’s entrance into the race, they surely understood that it meant the end of the road for some of them.

The other newsworthy event from tonight’s debate was the first appearance on stage of Jon Huntsman, who has become something of a media darling and a favorite of the intelligentsia which, in most election years, means he will be winnowed from the field almost immediately.  Huntsman’s performance tonight was solid, but it’s not clear it was strong enough to propel him into the top tier of candidates.

Finally, I should note the performance of Rick Santorum, who evidently realizes that the media has relegated him to the purgatory of second-tier status.  Santorum was not shy about voicing his displeasure about not getting equal air time, and he was probably the most aggressive candidate in term of attacking his fellow Republicans.  It was clear that he was trying to position himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, and that meant taking on Ron Paul and, to a lesser extent, Bachmann and Pawlenty.   Unfortunately for Santorum, I don’t think the media will have the patience to allow his candidacy to develop.

 Where does that leave the Republican race? Romney remains the frontrunner, and Bachmann continues to hold the media’s interest, if not their respect.  Newt will survive.  But the most important development will be Perry’s official announcement, which will subject him to an onslaught of negative media coverage.

Until then, it will be interesting to see how the media – the anointed arbiters of candidate viability – judge tonight’s debate. I’ll be on tomorrow with a summary of media reactions, and I’ll be posting regularly during Saturday’s straw poll.  Meanwhile, if you saw tonight’s debate, send me your thoughts.

What Will The Super Committee Do?

With the membership of the congressional “super committee”  almost finalized, it’s worth asking:  Who do the members  represent?  The answer to that question may provide clues regarding how they plan on devising $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts by November.  One way to think about the answer is to draw on political science theory regarding congressional committees more generally.   That’s what I’ll do in this post.  First some background:

With yesterday’s announcement by Speaker John Boehner, the Republican membership on the joint House-Senate committee is finalized.  Boehner appointed Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to the panel, where they will join Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s picks:  senators  Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).  Their Democratic counterparts, as announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid two days ago,  are  Max Baucus (D-Mont.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).   House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has until August 16 to announce the final three members of the committee.

 Under the terms of the debt agreement negotiated to end the debt impasse, this super committee has until Nov. 23 to deliver a deficit reduction proposal that has majority support among its members. Assuming it can do so, the committee’s proposal will then go to each chamber for an up-or-down vote by Christmas.  If the committee cannot achieve a majority, or if the full chambers do not approve them, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will be triggered – something most members in both parties do not want to see.

 So, what can we expect from this committee?  The answer depends in part on what you think motivates them. In this vein, political scientists have classified congressional committees as one of three types, according to what is the dominant interest driving committee members’ choices.  These (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories are:

1. The Committee Autonomy View:  One view is that committee members are largely free agents whose decisions reflect their own individual electoral and policy preferences. From this perspective, committee members are not very responsive to the full chamber or to the party leadership.  Instead constituency and district influences are more important.

2. The Chamber Dominated Perspective:  In this view, committees primarily represent the interests of the full chamber in which they serve, and they use their policy and political expertise to help the full chamber craft effective policy.  That is, the committee members serves primarily in an informational capacity.

3. The Party Dominated Perspective:   The third view sees committee members as primarily responsive to their respective party.  Members pursue the party’s interest because they benefit electorally if the party is able to pass a partisan-based legislative program that enhances the party’s “brand name”.  For this reason the committee members will fight hard in committee for policies that the full party prefers

Before applying these analytic frameworks – individual, chamber or party – to predict what the supercommittee might do, a couple of caveats are in order. To begin, these three perspectives may be more useful for understanding House committees than their Senate counterparts.  Second, they are usually used to explain the motivations of members on  standing, or permanent, committees in a particular chamber.  As a joint committee, it’s not clear how relevant these models are to understanding the super committee.  Nonetheless, they at least offer an initial way of thinking about what is likely to motivate the nine members selected so far.  So, let’s see where they take us.

1. Senate Democrats. Baucus, Kerry and Murray are all liberal members of the Democratic Senate caucus who chair key Senate committees. Kerry heads Foreign Relations, and Baucus chairs the Finance Committee. Murray chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) charged with furthering the electoral fortunes of Senate Democrats in 2012.  Based on Simon Jackman’s ideological rankings, Murray is the 9th most liberal member of the Senate, Kerry the 20th and Baucus the most moderate at 36. None of them is up for reelection earlier than 2014.  It seems clear that Reid expects these individuals to act on behalf of his leadership team, working for the electoral interests of Senate Democrats. That is, the party-dominated perspective is likely to best explain how they will approach the budget cutting exercise. Remember, Democrats are in grave danger of losing control of the Senate in 2012.  Note that Reid did not appoint any of the three Democrats – Dick Durbin, Kent Conrad, or Mark Warner – who were part of the Gang of Six whose deficit plan included significant entitlement reform. Although Baucus did serve last year on the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission, he opposed the compromise package authored by that panel.  So my expectation is that these individuals were chosen not so much for their budgetary expertise, but instead because  they carry political weight in the Senate, and their proposals are likely to receive party support.  Reid’s counting on them to protect Democrat’s political and policy interests.  My guess is that means the three will link any deficit reduction to an increase in taxes, and will likely resist entitlement reform that is linked to a reduction in benefits or a delay in eligibility.

2. Senate Republicans. In contrast to Reid’s uniform purpose, McConnell’s picks seem to reflect a range of motivations. While it is true that all three have pledged to oppose tax increases, they may be more amenable to tax reform if it is paired with ways to rein in entitlement costs. Toomey, a freshman Senator and former president of the conservative Club for Growth lobbying group, is the most conservative, ranking 9th in Jackman’s ideological rankings for conservatives in the Senate.  He’s on the committee, I think, to protect the interests of the tax cutting conservative wing of the Republican party. In contrast, Portman and Kyl are relatively liberal Republicans, ranking 32 and 41 on the conservative scale.  Kyl, as McConnell’s chief deputy, is the second ranking Republican in the Senate, and has already announced he will not seek reelection in 2012.  He will be the party leadership”s voice in deliberations, ensuring that what comes out will meet the party’s approval. Portman, like Toomey, is also a freshman Senator.  Note that before winning his Senate seat Portman served as OMB director under George W. Bush, so he brings a wealth of budget expertise to the table. Although he opposes tax hikes, he has expressed support for portions of the Gang of Six deficit reduction plan.  In some respects, then, he comes closest to playing an informational role.  Note that neither Toomey nor Portman is up for reelection in 2012, so none of the three Senate Republicans are going to be directly motivated by electoral concerns.

Bottom line?  It seems that McConnell’s picks illustrate all three motivations at work. I think Toomey and Portman may have some freedom to pursue personal preferences, although this autonomy may lead them in different directions during committee deliberations.  Toomey, as a Tea Party favorite, will be dead set against revenue hikes. But I expect Portman to be more open to some type of revenue enhancement linked to tax reform, in return for entitlement changes.   Kyl, meanwhile, will serve as elder statesman tasked with making sure the Republican Party’s broader interests are protected.  I think these three are more likely to go in different directions, and that at least some of them will be amenable to making a deal.

3. House Republicans. Boehner’s team is best viewed as an arm of the party leadership. All three appointees are veteran lawmakers. Significantly, none are members of the Tea Party caucus. Indeed Both Camp and Upton are among the more liberal Republicans in the House, and both chair important House committees – Camp heads Ways and Means, and Upton is chair of Energy and Commerce. So they bring some economic expertise to the table and they are responsive to the party leadership.  Hensarling, although much more conservative, heads the House Republican conference which basically administers the party caucus in that chamber and therefore is also tied closely to Boehner’s leadership team.  By cutting out the Tea Party caucus, Boehner is likely hoping his  team will come back with a proposal closer to the grand bargain he almost signed with President Obama.

So, where does that leave us?  The missing pieces of the puzzle are the three House members Pelosi will appoint.  My guess is that she will come back with three liberal appointees who will be responsive to her leadership, and who will be focused on protecting entitlement programs from significant cuts.  If so, that will make it harder for Democrats to compromise.

There are a couple of additional factors that complicate forecasting the committee’s deliberations.  First, there is significant pressure to make the committee’s deliberations “transparent”.  In my view, this is a mistake, because transparency makes it harder for committee members to make difficult choices. (Do you think we ever would have gotten a Constitution approved in Philadelphia if the delegates’ every move was scrutinized on the evening news and dissected in blog posts?)  So much depends on how deliberations are carried out.  Will there be a gag order imposed?

Committee members also have to anticipate how their choices will be received in their host chambers. In this respect, I think Republicans have more flexibility to give ground than do Democrats.  Keep in mind that this committee only needs a simple majority to vote out a proposal. If a majority can support a deficit reduction package that meets the $1.5 trillion target through a combination of deep spending cuts; entitlement reform that centers on some combination of benefit reductions, eligibility delays and – perhaps – means testing; and revenue enhancement based on the closing of tax loopholes and deductions, and reductions of subsidies, this might be enough for Boehner to push it through the House. He’ll likely lose some Tea Partiers, but he could pick up enough Democrats to get this passed, based on a coalition similar to the one that passed the debt default bill.

The Senate is dicier, in large part because Reid and his fellow Democrats are under tremendous electoral pressure to retain majority control in 2012, which militates against making hard choices. If Senate Democrats torpedo the super committee’s recommendations, then automatic cuts are supposed to kick in.  The problem with the automatic cuts is that they provide a semblance of political cover to Democrats who can say, “I tried to protect your benefits, but the Republicans played hardball and now the decision is out of my hands.”

These committee theories, then, provide one way of trying to frame what the supercommittee might do, but they leave a lot of wiggle room. At this point, my best guess is that we are in for a reprise of the debt default game of chicken, with both sides playing brinkmanship right up until the impending deadlines force them to choose.  I think there is room for a deal, however, along the lines of the “grand bargain” discussed by Boehner and Obama.   The biggest obstacle to that deal in committee, however, may be the Pelosi Democrats.  I’ll return to this topic when she makes her choices known.

Where Is The Most Powerful Person In The World?

What happened to the most powerful man on earth?  That’s the question Dana Milbank poses in his Washington Post column yesterday.  Milbank’s query was triggered by Obama’s evident inability on Monday to use the bully pulpit to halt the free fall of stock prices in the wake of Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the U.S. credit rating last week. Obama gave a public statement designed to reassure the markets, but as Milbank writes, “When he began his speech (and as cable news channels displayed for viewers), the Dow Jones industrials stood at 11,035. As he talked, the average fell below 11,000 for the first time in nine months, en route to a 635-point drop for the day, the worst since the 2008 crash.”  Although Milbank acknowledged that Obama probably shouldn’t be blamed for the slide, he then goes ahead and blames him anyway: “It’s not exactly fair to blame Obama for the rout: Almost certainly, the markets ignored him. And that’s the problem: The most powerful man in the world seems strangely powerless, and irresolute, as larger forces bring down the country and his presidency.”

Milbank’s comments are a reminder, if anyone needed one, that the favorable – at times fawning – media coverage Obama received in the 2008 campaign has long since disappeared, at least among the White House press corps.  More than two years into Obama’s presidency, the White House press corps has resumed its more familiar role as nattering nabobs of negativism (to recycle Vice President Agnew’s famous description of the Nixon-era press, using words penned by Nixon speechwriter William Safire).

But what I found most interesting about Milbank’s column, and of the press conference held yesterday that Milbank describes, is not confirmation that White House journalists have turned on the President.  Rather, it is how the press corps contributes to the already inflated expectations regarding the president’s very limited power to influence the economy.

After an initial segment dealing with education policy, Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney opened the press conference up to further questions.  Reporters immediately zeroed in on what the president was going to do about the falling stock market and the dismal economy more generally.  Nora O’Donnell led the way by wondering why Obama did not seem to demonstrate a greater sense of urgency in confronting the economic crisis.  Ever helpful, she suggested Obama might want to call  Congress, now in recess, back to Washington for an emergency session.

“Q The President said our problems are imminently solvable, and he talked about a renewed sense of urgency. Why not call Congress back to work?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that what we can do, after the process we just went through, is make clear that when Congress does get back from its recess, it is very clear –

Q That doesn’t sound very urgent.

MR. CARNEY: Well –

Q I mean, the Dow dropped below 11,000. Where’s the sense of urgency?

MR. CARNEY: Look, I think there is a great deal of sense — a great sense of urgency here about the need to continue to work to get our fiscal house in order, create jobs and grow the economy. The reality that we live in is that this is — as set up by the founders — is a government that has different branches with different amounts of power, and we need to work together to get significant things done, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Carney’s reminder that the President worked within a system of shared powers fell on deaf ears. Instead, O’Donnell’s suggestion to call Congress back from recess was echoed by other reporters. Here is NBC’s Chuck Todd:

“Q Jay, there are, I think, six specific things that the President has been calling Congress to do on the jobs front — free trade agreements, the infrastructure bank, patent reform, unemployment insurance, payroll tax cut — that’s seven. [Seven? I count five. But never mind.] Why not bring Congress back now to just do that? I understand the answer to Norah’s question about the urgency on the debt, that you’re going to let the committee see if it actually works –

MR. CARNEY: Well, it seems we’re getting a drumbeat here to call Congress back from its recess.

Q — but why not — well, it does seem that the markers are crashing; we’re now below 500 points since this briefing began. I mean — I’m not implying any relation, just that — I mean, the point is, the economy — the American public seems to be in a little bit of a panic, and yet Washington is like, well, we’re going to stand back and wait until school starts.”

Call Congress back to Washington? Did any of these reporters read the S&P report explaining their decision to downgrade the U.S. government’s credit rating?  It was based in part on their belief that the political polarization in Washington prevented elected officials from addressing key economic issues in timely fashion. And yet these journalists seem intent on driving that point home by having Obama call Congress back into emergency session, only days after the near default, in the naïve (or perhaps self-interested!) belief that during an emergency session Congress would move more quickly this time to pass a series of not uncontroversial legislative proposals.  Never mind that it would likely result in a reprise of the months-long debt default negotiations.  At least it would demonstrate leadership!

Politico’s Glenn Thrush’s question near the end of the conference aptly summarized the tenor of the press queries:

“Q — you said he will be contributing to the process, talking about the super committee, but he won’t be leading it. He is the leader of the free world. Why isn’t he leading this process?

MR. CARNEY: I think that was a technical recognition of the fact that it is a congressional committee, Glenn. Look, this President, his leadership on these issues is quite established.”

Evidently Carney’s reminder that the Congress has some say when it comes to economic issues did not satisfy Milbank.  In the conclusion to his WaPo piece, Milbank muses about Obama’s seemingly feckless leadership: “That is the enduring mystery of Obama’s presidency. He delivered his statement on the economy beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but that was as close as he came to forceful leadership. He looked grim and swallowed hard and frequently as he mixed fatalism (“markets will rise and fall”) with vague, patriotic exhortations (“this is the United States of America”).

‘There will always be economic factors that we can’t control,’ Obama said. Maybe. But it would be nice if the president gave it a try.”

Here’s the real mystery: where was Milbank and his White House press colleagues during the debt debate?  They clearly weren’t in Washington, or they wouldn’t be urging the president, to paraphrase Milbank’s words,  to give it the old college try.  Instead, they would be explaining to their readers that when Carney defended his boss by, in Milbank’s words, uttering “something about the founders and the separation of powers” Carney was actually writing Milbank’s lead.  But Milbank evidently views references to the Constitution as a possible explanation for Obama’s “failure to lead” as too esoteric for his readers.  Far better to blame it on Obama’s lack of a “fire in the belly”.  Shades of Drew Westen!

Where’s the “most powerful man in the world”?  I suspect that he’s in the White House, talking to Lincoln’s portrait about how a White House press corps hungry for news seems determined to make an impossible job even harder.

The Real Story of Obama’s Presidency

What happened to Obama? According to psychologist Drew Westen in this editorial in the New York Times the answer is simple: the President forgot to tell us a story that would help us make sense of the problems we face.  Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, believes that Obama’s biggest failure is not 9.2% unemployment, it’s not his caution in reacting to the “Arab spring”, it’s not the failure to close Guantanamo, or his decision to largely adopt the basic tactics underlying the Bush administration’s war on terror, including the use of military commissions and domestic eavesdropping.  No, these are merely symptoms of a deeper failure that has contributed to the growing sense of disillusionment, particularly on the Left, with Obama’s presidency.  Simply put, Obama has not offered “a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right… .” In Westen’s view, “that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands.”

It’s hard to exaggerate just how wrong Westen’s argument is, starting with his assumption that policies flow “naturally” from this “simple narrative”.  In this regard, Westen falls prey to a basic misconception: that a President can control the narrative by which the public defines his presidency. In fact, as I have said repeatedly on this site, there are always multiple narratives from which the public can choose in its efforts to make sense of the President and his policies.  Moreover, the public evaluates these narratives in the context of their own lives, and the lives around them – it doesn’t rely only on what opinion leaders tell them.    This is why the public rarely speaks with one voice; rather, public opinion is fragmented, inconsistent and even contradictory.  Indeed, as I showed during the debate over the debt crisis, public opinion can’t usually be relied upon as a guide to policymakers, including the President.  In short, presidential storytelling – no matter how eloquent – leads not to the “natural” process that Westen envisions, in which the public inevitably coalesces behind the “right” policy option.   Instead, it leads to policy outcomes that are stitched together from inconsistent and often contradictory visions about what government should do.  As we saw during the debt debate, politicians who sincerely differ regarding what ails our economy are often forced to come to an agreement through bargaining, compromise and mutual partisan adjustment.  In the debt crisis, the result was a decision that pleased no one – but which also avoided the biggest calamity: a debt default.

At the root of Westen’s misguided analysis is a simple failure to understand just how limited the powers of the presidency are, and how our system of shared powers is supposed to work. (I don’t deal here with his faulty historical analysis, beginning with his misreading of FDR’s political effectiveness.  In fact, after 1937, FDR’s domestic political influence was at low ebb, stirring rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. It took World War II to revitalize his presidency.) This afternoon, in an effort to stem the freefall in stock prices, Obama held a televised press conference to remind investors that the U.S. was the most credit-worthy nation in history.  The stock market tanked nonetheless.  It did so not because Obama failed to tell the “proper story”, but because investors weighed his words against the economic fundamentals, including Standard and Poor’s downgrading (faulty math notwithstanding) of the U.S. credit rating, and found his reassurances wanting.  Actions, and economic indicators – and faulty math too – trump words – even the president’s.

Westen is right in one sense: there has been a failure in storytelling.  But the failure is Westen’s, not Obama’s. In this respect he is in good company.  If there is one dominant, but profoundly mistaken theme among those who supported Obama in the 2008, it is that he has lost his communication mojo.  But there has been no failure to communicate – there has only been a failure to fulfill the wildly unrealistic expectations that accompanied Obama’s inauguration as President.

To his credit, Westen almost seems to grasp this basic fact – but then it slips away from him. He acknowledges – briefly – that perhaps Obama lacked the experience of previous presidents: “Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”

But then he brushes this aside, and slips back into his idealized vision of the world, one in which bad things are caused by bad people: “When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.” If only Obama would rise up in righteous indignation and identify the culprits – the bankers, Wall Street tycoons, the oil companies’ CEO’s, the Republicans – that have caused the economic collapse!

But Obama won’t tell that story – he won’t explain the truth to people – that there is good and evil in the world, and those who oppose the President and his policies are evil.  Why won’t Obama do this?  Perhaps the fault lies, after all, with the President’s own vacillation between good and evil: “A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.”

Bipartisanship – the horror!  Westen, like many “purists” on the Left (and like their counterparts on the Right) deludes himself into thinking politics is a zero-sum game centered on the struggle between the forces of good (those who support my politics) and the forces of evil (those who oppose my policies).  He apparently does not understand that it is he, and purists like him, who pose the bigger threat to Obama’s presidency. Their demand that the President eschew compromise, and the promise to punish him if he does not, is what makes it so much more difficult for Obama to address the real problems that confront the nation.

Westen is a psychologist, so he can perhaps be forgiven for failing to recognize what the President (who taught constitutional law, after all) quite early on grasped: that our political system is predicated on the assumption that no single party or group has a monopoly on truth. Perhaps Madison put it most eloquently in Federalist #10 when, in explaining how to cure the “mischief of faction”, he warned against Westen’s solution – the pursuit of the “correct policy” as expounded by a dominant majority.  Instead, “the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”  That lesson – that the Framers designed a system that resolved disputes through compromise, negotiation, and the conscious choice of “bipartisanship over the message of confrontation” – is one that Westen has yet to learn.

There is a true story to be told about Obama’s presidency.  But it’s not Westen’s, which is largely a work of fiction.

Addendum:  Both John Sides  and  Jonathan Chait make similar arguments.