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.