The Westen Piece

Everyone is talking about Drew Westen’s mega-article in the New York Times recently, which takes Barack Obama to task for not being a good storyteller. As I’m sure regular readers will expect, I think it’s bunk. I didn’t want to deal with it over the weekend, however, and so others beat me to the main points, and made them better than I would. #1. Westen misunderstands the presidency, and even misunderstands the power of rhetoric within the presidency; John Sides explains. #2. Westen isn’t even right about the basic facts; Andrew Sprung, who follows Obama’s rhetoric more carefully than anyone else I know of, has no difficulty finding several examples of Obama saying exactly what Westen wants Obama to say. And a long time ago, Brendan Nyhan was excellent on Westen in general.

But if that’s not enough, I’ll add a bit. What Sprung doesn’t really knock down is Westen’s claim that Obama, unlike FDR, failed to find a villain in his rhetoric. Westen:

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. He swore to keep the people who had caused the crisis out of the halls of power, and he made good on that promise. In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

This is a much-beloved quotation for those who place a lot of stock in the idea that presidents must identify villains, but it’s a cheat. I suspect that Obama will let loose plenty of partisan zingers during the campaign next year (indeed, he did as much during the midterm campaign last year). However, Westen’s point is about 1933, not 1936. Is it true that FDR’s inaugural was about “who had caused it”? Not really, I’d say. The famous line is, to be sure, about a villain, but it’s not bankers or Repbulicans — it’s of course about “fear itself.” Now, it’s absolutely true that FDR did spend three paragraphs of his inaugural on what the what happened and who did it questions, and he refers to “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods” and the “money changers” (twice) during those passages, but it’s “fear itself” that has the starring role. By the way, is Obama all that far of when he talks about the “consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”? Not to mention calling (unspecified, to be sure) others “childish”?

Anyway, I’m really talking about FDR, here. So: the first Fireside Chat is about reopening the banks. It’s wonderful; I like it very much. But it does virtually nothing of what Westen wants. There’s almost nothing about blame. Way down at the bottom, there’s a little bit about some bankers having been “incompetent or dishonest,” but it’s hardly the thrust of the piece; instead, it’s all about how good and safe and normal banks are going to be now. I’m not going to go through all the Chats, but I did read through the second one and: no villains at all.

So, to sum up: presidential rhetoric matters far, far less than Westen wants us to believe, but at any rate Obama did say the things that Westen says Obama didn’t say, but FDR did not say the things that Westen believes FDR said.

A couple more things, perhaps a bit more political sciency. One is that (and I hope John Sides will correct me if I’m wrong) we know virtually nothing about any long-term effects of presidential rhetoric. We know quite a bit about short-term effects, and we know they’re mostly very limited. Long term, though, is a bit harder to tell. My political instinct says it doesn’t make much difference…but I really don’t know that to be true.

The second thing is that I think comparing anything about Obama to FDR, especially in comparing 2009 to 1933, is just a mistake. Richard Neustadt defined the Truman and Ike years as “midcentury,” saying that they featured “emergencies in policy with politics as usual.” It contrasted with FDR’s time, when politics as usual was suspended — at least for the first couple of years, and then again for a while after Pearl Harbor. In my view, by that definition, we’re still in midcentury, and have been except for a very short time immediately after the September 11 attacks. January 2009 was midcentury by this definition, and there’s simply nothing that Barack Obama could have done about it. But March 1933 was not, and it gave FDR plenty of room to maneuver that Obama (and all of the president in between) just didn’t have. That, and not Obama’s rhetoric, is the key thing that separates them.

Anyway…this now concludes my obligation to say something about the Westen article.

UPDATE: See also what the always-excellent Eric Schickler has to say about FDR.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.