The Westen piece

It’s not exactly a secret that there is widespread liberal consternation with the Obama presidency. Though the frustrations aren’t always apparent in the polls, the evidence to bolster the trend isn’t exactly elusive. As regular readers know, I don’t generally share those attitudes, but only a fool would deny their existence and their intensity.

With this in mind, Drew Westen, an Emory psychology professor, had a fairly long, much-discussed New York Times piece yesterday that strongly resonated with many of the president’s liberal detractors. And while I can appreciate why the essay might have been cathartic, I also found it, at best, underwhelming.

Now, I suspect those who found Westen’s piece compelling won’t appreciate this. “Of course you didn’t like it,” the emails will say. “You support the president.” But that’s not what I’m getting at here. There are plenty of criticisms of the president I find quite persuasive, on areas including housing policy, Afghanistan, immigration, civil liberties, and negotiating styles in general, among other things.

In this case, though, it’s Westen’s case itself that fell flat, at least with me.

Westen’s general approach to political analysis, like Lakoff’s, focuses almost exclusively on rhetoric and the establishment of larger political narratives though “storytelling.” Yesterday’s piece is a little tough to excerpt — it’s about 3,300 words — but Westen believes political stories drive the public’s understanding of the world around them, and President Obama’s missteps can be attributed — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly — to poor rhetoric, inadequate themes, and weak storytelling.

So, for example, had the president chosen a story more to Westen’s liking in his inaugural address — one that condemned Republicans and Wall Street more directly — 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.”

I seriously doubt that. And yet, this is the prism through which all of Westen’s analysis shines. As Jon Chait put it:

Westen’s op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen’s telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama’s failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Westen piece resonated with folks who want to hear the same kind of rhetoric Westen wants to hear, which necessarily makes it seem persuasive. But that doesn’t make the larger analysis accurate.

Take Westen’s take on the Recovery Act.

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.

Most of this doesn’t make any sense. I’ve criticized the size of the stimulus hundreds of times, so on the larger concern, Westen and I largely on the same page. But notice the basis for his argument: the Recovery Act would have been bigger if the president had “indicted” Republican economic policies. I have no idea how Westen arrives at this conclusion.

For that matter, the stimulus included plenty of tax breaks, and Westen believes they “had already been shown to be inert.” Really, how? Through use of a time machine? The tax policies in the Recovery Act weren’t a continuation of Bush policies; they were new tax breaks. Even if Westen believes Bush-era tax breaks were a failure — a belief I strongly share — it’s lazy and wrong to assume that all tax policy is the same.

There was also this assessment of FDR:

In similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right. Beginning in his first inaugural address, and in the fireside chats that followed, he explained how the crash had happened, and he minced no words about those who had caused it. He promised to do something no president had done before: to use the resources of the United States to put Americans directly to work, building the infrastructure we still rely on today.

This is wrong on a variety of levels. FDR took office with massive Democratic majorities in both chambers after the economy had already bottomed out; Obama walked into office in the middle of the freefall, still needing Republican votes to overcome filibusters. These circumstances aren’t exactly “similar.”

What’s more, Westen’s praise for FDR’s rhetoric notwithstanding, that same first inaugural from Roosevelt called for the state and local governments to cut spending, which is hardly the “story” Westen would want to hear, and the larger storytelling didn’t fundamentally alter the public’s perceptions anyway. Towards the end of FDR’s first term, despite the Westen-endorsed themes, the vast majority of Americans still wanted a balanced budget — despite 20% unemployment.

Perhaps most notably, Andrew Sprung scrutinized Westen’s piece and discovered that Obama has publicly and repeatedly stressed some of the identical messages Westen wanted to hear from the president. Maybe the professor missed those speeches; maybe he didn’t check.

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…. 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.

Westen says the debt-ceiling deal cuts entitlements, but it doesn’t. He gets Medicaid policy wrong, too. He rests his entire case on the power of rhetorical phrases, when as Chait noted, “The clear reality is that Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately.”

There’s a sizable contingent on the left that wants Obama to be The Great Progressive Pugilist, shaping a agenda around blistering attacks on Republicans and their allies. Love him or hate him, Obama has never been that guy. Remember the 2004 Democratic convention speech that launched Obama into the political stratosphere? It was the keynote address in a year Dems were taking on an incumbent, and Obama literally never even mentioned Bush or Cheney.

He doesn’t want to pick partisan fights. He said as much in 2008 and won in a near-landslide.

Kevin Drum concluded:

…I think Westen misses the big point. The problem isn’t that Obama didn’t have a story. He did, and he told it pretty well. His story was one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it. You might not like that story, but it was there. And while it obviously didn’t succeed in moving the needle on partisanship, it did allow Obama to produce a pretty decent set of legislative achievements. As much as two years of anti-conservative stemwinders would have thrilled me, I doubt they would have produced anywhere near as much. […]

Obama’s cool demeanor got him elected and it’s kept him personally popular in the face of massive Republican intransigence over the past two years. Like it or not, the public seems to prefer that to the pugilistic style that seems like such a no-brainer to us lefties.

I continue to believe progressives have a credible case to make against the president. The problem is, Westen’s indictment isn’t it.