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.


  1. “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”

    You imply that this is,in fact, key to understanding the Obama presidency. How do we know this? What in particular suggests outcomes derived from inexperience rather than, say, governing philosophy? How does inexperience show through? What effects has it had?

  2. I’m not sure that you and other empirical political scientists are really responding to the same things as Westen. Westen is not really talking about policy per se and he certainly is not talking about public opinion. What he’s talking about is the culture of politics. Liberals are frustrated because Obama’s language and his rhetoric is not that different from Bush’s. They wanted what Skowronek would call a politics of reconstruction and what they’ve seen is a politics of disjunction — a president who acts like the Reagan regime is still thriving. This is,of course, partially related to the nature of Obama’s coalition (something that Westen does mention.)

  3. Gerald,

    But that’s the point of my post, and perhaps an indictment of Skowronek’s model as well. What Westen wants – a politics of reconstruction, to use your (and Skowronek’s) phrase – is unrealistic given the existing constitutional, institutional and political constraints on Obama. Indeed, a close reading of Skowronek’s reveals a deep ambivalence on his part regarding just how much agency a president has to “make” his own politics. There’s a reason why scholars think Skowronek’s book should have been titled The Presidents Politics Make! And if you read his more recent analyses of Obama’s presidency, you’ll see that Skowronek is having trouble categorizing Obama’s place in political time. In short, the reason that Obama sounds a lot like Bush is because the political context is not much different from what it was under Bush. But Westen – and others who criticize the President for failing to bring change – don’t seem to grasp this basic fact.

  4. Michael – Good questions,all. Alas, they defy easy answers, particularly in a comments section. In a sense, the presidency is sui generis, making it an almost impossible position to prepare for. No one really knows what it’s like until they’ve been there. And efforts by scholars to tease out the relationship between prior experiences and performance in office have proved maddenly inconsistent, in part because other attributes, like temperament and judgment, can trump experience or at least complicate its influence. Think of LBJ and Nixon, two individuals with vast political experience at the national level who nonetheless in some sense had “failed” presidencies. But this does not mean experience, or its flip side, inexperience, can be dismissed completely as a causal factor in explaining performance. All other things being equal, I think it’s probably true that executive experience and/or holding elective office at the national office helps, and the more the better. But that only takes us so far. And it’s not just the president’s experience that matters – we need to look at his key advisers as well.

    In any case, it is Westen who raises the experience point – belatedly, in my view. Evidently those “troubling signs” regarding Obama’s lack of experience seemed a lot less troubling to Westen back on the campaign trail, when he was enthralled with the hopey-changey thing. But whose fault is that? It’s not like Obama hid his past from Westen. So he shouldn’t be too surprised – that’s my point. Obama hasn’t changed so much as the scales have fallen from Westen’s eyes.

  5. Chait was pretty brutal about that Westen piece:

    Those dewey-eyed West Wing fans are maddening. I was a huge Obama supporter in 2008. Had the posters and everything. Always thought he would be a low-key centrist. I don’t know why people expected a “progressive”.

    And, let’s face it, if the economy were stronger, we wouldn’t have NYT pieces about how Obama lost his mojo. His lack of fire would be seen as “cool” and “Presidential”.

  6. I’m a new reader and enjoy reading your take on current affairs. I also found this op-ed piece frustrating. I have two questions.
    Your comments suggest that the “real problems that confront the nation” can be adequately addressed on the basis of compromise between Democrats and Republicans. Is this simply because–given our system–you believe compromise is the only possible option? Or do you really think that give and take from both sides in their current forms could result in effective solutions to the problems that Americans face?
    And not to be nit-picky, but are the purists that you mention really making “it so much more difficult for Obama?”

  7. Gerald,
    You think that this is the politics of disjunction? Why?
    Skowronek’s book closes with a discussion of the “waning of political time” in which he suggests that we have entered the age of perpetual preemption. In my view, the Obama presidency is a perfect demonstration of this claim. He came to office promising “transformative leadership” and citing Reagan as one example of a leader that he’d like to emulate (politically, not policy-wise) but at every turn his reform efforts have been stymied by remnants of the Reagan regime.
    As Prof. Dickinson has pointed out, Skowronek himself has had some problems categorizing the Obama presidency. I find this puzzling since end of his book offers a clear – and I think convincing claim – about 21st century American politics.

  8. Those are fair points. The dispute is really about how much agency the president has. Surely, he has some. George W. Bush was essentially able to get his entire domestic program during his first term and, after the election of 2000, no one would have said that existing constitutional, institutional and political constraints would have allowed him to do it. In this way, Obama suffers by comparison to Bush (which may or may not be fair to Obama).

  9. “Westen … 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.”

    Um, what? What compromises was Obama unable to make because of opposition from left-wing purists? Their opposition didn’t stop him from giving up the public option, or agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, or putting Social Security and Medicare on the table in the debt ceiling negotiations.

  10. In what sense is the following accurate?

    “In the debt crisis, the result was a decision that pleased no one – but which also avoided the biggest calamity: a debt default.”

    Obama’s capitulation to the Republican House did not please Boehner? Or McConnell? From the pictures and video I have seen they seemed pretty damned pleased with themselves as they should be. They achieved almost everything they wanted while conceding very little. Am I being “partisan” or “ideological” or a “purist” for pointing out the obvious?



  11. Will,

    Perhaps a more accurate phrasing would have been “pleased almost no one”? For despite Boehner’s and McConnell’s political posturing, the fact is that the Tea Party wing of the Republican party was deeply disappointed with the deal because of the failure to cut more spending and to build in a balanced budget amendment. Pelosi Democrats, meanwhile, thought Obama gave away the spending store with no tax increases (as yet). Look at the House vote – the deal was opposed by both the Right and the Left (Democrats split evenly on it, 95 a piece, and the 60 House Tea Party members barely supported it, 32-28. It passed primarily because the House majority and minority leadership were able to whip support among moderates, with a promise of better things to come. Interestingly, early polling indicates that Republican voters are less enamored of the deal than are Democrats, which may say more about Obama’s support with Democrats than it does the public’s knowledge of the details of the debt negotiation.

  12. JustinP — you’re right. I meant to say preemption (what awful terminology by Skowronek, by the way).

  13. Gerald – You are so right about the terminology. The entire argument could have been made more simply and clearly.

  14. Matthew,
    In a post dated July 21, 2010, you said that you were going to write a post explaining your own criteria for evaluating presidents. I can’t seem to find that later post, however. I would be fascinated to see what you say in light of your argument here.

  15. Gerald – I did say that, didn’t I? It’s all I can do now just to stay up with current events while keeping my day job. But if I can, I’ll try to get to it. I think it is an especially important topic with all this talk of what Hillary could do differently.

  16. Gerald – That’s right, and I didn’t’ mean to suggest otherwise: presidents surely possess some independent influence. I might quibble with your characterization of Bush’s first term, however. He did get a number of important laws through Congress, most notably two large tax cuts. But keep in mind that coming off the 2000 election, and with a budget surplus (remember that?!) there was broad political support for that first tax cut. The only debate was how big it would be, and eventually Bush split the difference between the House and the Senate versions. Same with education reform – he shepherded No Child Left Behind through only with the support of Ted Kennedy and after agreeing to drop key provisions in the bill. 9-11, of course, changed everything, not least by serving as a public focal point that allowed Republicans to regain majority control of Congress in 2002.

  17. Auri,

    Welcome aboard! Glad you’ve decided to join the fun. In response to your very good question, I don’t think it’s either-or. Historically, compromise has been a necessity in the U.S. political system because of our constitutionally based system of separated institutions sharing powers. Because our elected branches each respond to different constituencies and on different timetables, it is very hard to get any legislation through without compromise. That is particular the case because of the post-World War II proclivity for voters to return divided control of government (they do so more than half the time. Whether that leads to effective government is a longstanding debate among scholars. Dating back to the 1950s, many political scientists have advocated a system of responsible parties, whereby one party is given control of all three elected branches and allowed to pass a party program. The voters could then retrospectively reward or punish the party in power based on the results. Others argue, however, that divided government against the backdrop of shared powers does, in fact, produce better policy by tempering the extremists elements in both parties. I confess that I lean toward the latter viewpoint, particularly in this age of polarized politics, but I don’t think it is a hard and fast rule. Instead, it must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

  18. Dewey-eyed West Wing fans – a wonderful and apt description!

    You are, of course, exactly right about the relationship between the economy and Obama’s “failing communications skills”. The West Wing/Westen types have the causal relationship exactly backwards.

  19. Thanks for all your replies, Matthew.

    I’m not a presidential scholar, but I would guess that I would place high importance on effective agenda setting and quality of appointments as evaluative criteria to start.

    I’m not even one of those leftists who is disappointed in Obama. (I will be disappointed if he loses.) The Westen argument, for whatever reason, seemed to hit on something intuitively right to me — it might simply be that Obama’s rhetoric, in my opinion, has been very ineffective in changing the political conversation at all. I attribute this partially to the bungling of TARP 2 amidst slow economic growth

    I agree with what you say about Skowronek above. Part of my fascination with your blog lies in trying to figure out the gaps and maddening vagueness of Skowronek’s model.

  20. This was incredibly vindicating and parallels much of my response to my friend (though explained much more succinctly and eloquently) right down to the multiple narratives the public has to choose from, FDR’s waning domestic power in his second term, investors ignoring Obama’s speech due to economic fundamentals, and the constitutional limits on presidential power. There has been no failure to communicate. I even pointed out the irony that demanding the president eschew compromise makes it just that much harder for Obama (as you put it), although as a liberal who would like to see liberal solutions disillusioned west wing types are incredibly frustrating for me. I imagine this irony is much more amusing to a bystander.

    I do have one question though. You suggest that had Obama been more experienced, the results of his Presidency may have been better for liberals. What specifically do you think he could have done to get legislation passed? I saw your response to Michael’s question and if the results of studies on presidential experience are mixed, and if Obama is surrounded by experienced advisers, I’m just not convinced experience is an issue in this case unless a good argument can be made for specifically what Obama could have done to get what he wants that he didn’t do. That said, perhaps the experience issue cannot be ruled out entirely and I do admit to giving it slightly more consideration today than I did when voting for him.

    Back to Weston’s piece.. what’s funny is that a quick google search shows Obama attempting to define exactly the type of narrative Weston is seeking, especially early on in his term. I specifically remember him blaming Bush, Republicans, and Wall Street greed well into the first half of his term. The first link I clicked on is video of Lou Dobb’s show playing a clip of Obama in August 2009 saying “those who created this mess should get out of the way.” The first response by Lou Dobbs’ commentator? “Well it really comes across as sort of juvenile.” When Obama pointed fingers and tried to define a good and evil narrative, he got called whiny. The response of that commentator parallels the falling poll numbers that greeted this narrative.

  21. Andrew – The experience question that both you and Michael asked really deserves a more extended response. As I tried to suggest to Michael, it’s easy to say “experience” matters – harder to prove it. In lieu of a longer post on the topic, however, let me briefly point out where I think Obama’s relative lack of experience cost him. Note that these are more speculative than I’d like. First, he had trouble getting to yes – that is, he allowed negotiations to drag on longer than would someone who understood the intricacies of negotiating with Congress. I’m thinking of health care in particular – the length of time it took to resolve that issue really allowed opposition to crystallize. Second, he was too susceptible to being led by his substantive advisers, particularly the heavyweights on his economic and national security teams. It’s not clear to me that he understood, at least at the beginning, how “experts” have their own interests and institutional vantage points that don’t necessarily jibe with the president’s. Think, for example, about the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Obama basically chose from a menu developed by his generals. Finally, he doesn’t seem to have a feel for how the executive branch operates. I’m thinking here, for example, about the role of the DNI in the intelligence community. This is a position created ostensibly to solve the coordination problems that led to 9-11, but it simply lacks control over the institutional levers necessary to fulfill this mission. I’m not sure Obama realizes this. Would a more experienced presidents have avoided these problems – assuming you even agree they are problems? It’s hard to say, particularly without specifying the type of experience that matters. My educated guess is “yes”, a more experienced individual – say Hillary – would have avoided these issues. But that is hard to prove.

  22. Gerald – If you look back at previous posts, or if you continue to lurk on this site, you’ll find that I am very skeptical of the idea that presidents can change the political conversation. The reason is that they no longer command a national audience the way that presidents in the 1970’s and early 80’s did. The media universe has become too fragmented for there to be a “national” audience receptive to what the president says. Everything is narrowcasting today in the 24-7 hothouse media environment. The President’s voice is just one of many. As Andrew points out in his comment, Obama actually did say many of the things Westen castigates him for not saying – but it largely fell on deaf ears. And that’s because media outlets are increasingly sorting themselves by ideology, the better to cater to a specific audience. The result is an echo chamber effect, where people gravitate to sites that tell them what they already believe. See RedState, or Sullivan, or Fox of MSNBC or the Daily Kos, etc.

    Which is why I have this site, and why I encourage comments like yours. The idea here is to talk to each other, not past each other.

  23. Gerald and Prof. Dickinson:

    I think that you are both rightfully critical of Skowronek’s model (calling it that is a stretch since it is extremely difficult to see each individual piece) but I want to defend it for one reason: it provides a lens through which to examine the range of potential presidential action as soon as the president takes office. Unlike many historical analyses of the executive, Skowronek shows us exactly why we should *all* be “ambivalent” (in Prof. Dickinson’s words) about the range of action available to a specific president. To me, this is a more realistic view of the office itself – indeed, it almost takes the person out of the office.

    Based on the points raised above (and in previous posts), I’m not clear why you are both skeptical. Do you think that Neustadt’s reliance on the “skill and will” of particular president’s does a better job explaining Obama’s difficulties?

    I also think the points you raise about “going public” are important. I’d point to Canes-Wrone’s work on the impact of public appeals as one way to demonstrate just how limited an option this truly is for any president.

  24. Justin,

    I have the utmost respect for Skowronek and the way he built on realignment theory to develop his analytic framework centered on the notion of “political time”. Indeed, along with Neustadt’s book, it’s the only other one I’ve assigned every year in my presidency seminar dating back to my time at Harvard. I think it’s a very good heuristic in that it makes you think about the context in which different presidents operate. The problem is that it is very difficult to operationalize, which means it has not proved very useful in a predictive sense. As I noted in a previous comment, Skowronek has struggled mightily to place Obama in political time. You are correct that at the end of the original edition of The Politics Presidents Make Skowronek suggested that political time was waning and that all presidents would now be locked into a permanent politics of preemption – but he subsequently backed off that in light of Bush’s presidency. This suggests to me that his model is not fully developed. I should add that Skowronek’s anlaytic framework is entirely consistent with Neustadt’s – they just operate on a different level of analysis. Neustadt looks at what presidents can do to secure power, given a particular context. Skowronek looks at the context itself, and what it suggests for presidents’ opportunity to lead. They examine two sides of the same power coin.

    As you note, Canes-Wrone does an excellent job providing additional empirical support for the relationship between presidents and the public that Neustadt first laid out in Presidential Power.

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