Obama’s Squandered Opportunity

Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, hit the nail on the head in a piece that he wrote for the Times last week, in which he bemoaned President Obama‘s failure to seize the narrative of the political issues of our times. Imagine, says Westen, how things would have been different if Obama had captured the narrative in his Inauguration Address. “Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But 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. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.”

Westen is absolutely right, but a little late to the party. “Maybe I missed it, but where was the fireside chat?” was what I wrote on February 9, 2009 about Obama’s handling of the stimulus bill. “Imagine if he had sat down in front of a national television audience and said, in effect, here’s where we are; here’s what we have to do; here’s what the elements of the bill will accomplish; and here is where what we will do next. Doubtless the debate in Congress would have been very different. . . . Obama needs to take charge of his plans before they drift into a cloud of uncertainty. He needs to show his command of the problem. He needs to take control of the situation.”

Here’s the other thing he should’ve done: pointed a finger at the villains of the story. Instead, he allowed himself and his government to become the villain.

What a terrible job.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.