The Party Line – August 12, 2011: Obama, Drew Westen, and Me
Watching Barack Obama deliver his jobs speech Thursday in Holland, MI, I couldn’t help but wonder if the president had read Drew Westen’s critique in last weekend’s New York Times.
Under the headline “What Happened to Obama?” Westen, an Emory University psychology professor and Democratic communications guru of a sort, tried to divine the source of the Obama administration’s trouble. The seeds were sown, Westen explains, in the opening minutes of the presidency, as Obama delivered his inaugural address.
As Westen recounts (in words remarkably similar to ones I’ve used in the past), Obama’s speech failed to tell the story of the disaster that had befallen America during the Bush years:
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.
And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.
In fact, Westen and I use the exact same phrase for the core message that Obama needed to communicate out of the box: “your government has your back again.”
That would be as opposed to Wall Street’s back, or the Banksters’ backs, corporations’ backs, or the wealthiest of the wealthy’s backs.
Westen reminds us that narrative—a structure for understanding the world around us as old as humanity itself—needs opposing forces. Narrative honors heroes, yes, but in order for there to be heroes, there also has to be a villain—and Obama’s seemingly obsessive refusal to name the villains not only undermined his administration’s narrative, it communicated that the architects of America’s misfortunes would not be held accountable.
This (again, as I have often said) created the space for the various TEA parties, and their sympathizers and sycophants. Yes, this so-called populist anger has been nourished, exploited, and in some cases manufactured by some of the very people and organizations—let’s go ahead and call them villains—that helped tank the economy, but it would have been a much harder task to gin up this “movement” if Obama had dared to call out these villains from the get-go.
But he didn’t then, and he continues to spare the rod and spoil the spoiled today. Even with popular opinion overwhelmingly favoring higher taxes on wealthy individuals and windfall corporate profits, President Obama bent over backwards to again avoid naming names.
As witnessed Monday by NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, this avoidance is comprehensive and conscious:
It was striking how far they went to try not to point fingers. As a matter of fact, just before the president began speaking today, I was able to see the printed text of his comments on the teleprompter, and I watched a last minute edit that may give some insight. One passage of the speech referred to asking for sacrifice from those who can most afford to pay their fair share. And as I was looking at the teleprompter, the phrase wealthy Americans and corporations was highlighted and deleted from the text.
Because of that failure to finger, and a striking lack of proactive ideas in general, Obama’s Monday White House matinee served up a nothing-burger deluxe—not at all rare these days, I’m afraid, and also not well done. He wasn’t selling the steak, he wasn’t selling the sizzle, and he wasn’t telling a very good story in structural terms, either.
But the president very much needs to tell a story—to construct a narrative—because he very much needs to sell something: himself.
And so, in what was very clearly a campaign-style appearance at the Johnson Controls factory in Holland, president/candidate Barack Obama tried his hand at crafting a Drew Westen-style traditional narrative:
We know there are things we can do right now that will help accelerate growth and job creation –- that will support the work going on here at Johnson Controls, here in Michigan, and all across America. We can do some things right now that will make a difference. We know there are things we have to do to erase a legacy of debt that hangs over the economy. But time and again, we’ve seen partisan brinksmanship get in the way -– as if winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country. This downgrade you’ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress. See, it didn’t happen because we don’t have the capacity to pay our bills -– it happened because Washington doesn’t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound.
So, “brinksmanship” is the big, bad wolf? Washington is the villain? Well, as Obama tells it, yes, but more specifically, it has been decided by the White House political team that the Lex Luthor to Obama’s Superman (if not his kryptonite) is Congress:
They’re common-sense ideas that have been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans, things that are supported by Carl Levin. The only thing keeping us back is our politics. The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.
And that has to stop. It’s got to stop. We’re supposed to all be on the same team, especially when we’re going through tough times. We can’t afford to play games — not right now, not when the stakes are so high for our economy.
And if you agree with me –- it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent — you’ve got to let Congress know. You’ve got to tell them you’ve had enough of the theatrics. You’ve had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases. Start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That’s what they need to do — they’ve got to hear from you.
I will give the president a tiny bit of credit in that, instead of the wholly empty pleading for a similar call to Congress that he stroked during the debt-ceiling circle-jerk, Obama did list a series of actions he’d like Congress to approve (as meaningless, dangerous or counterproductive as many of them may be). But Obama also bragged about what he was able to get done without having to go through Congress. And Obama made it clear throughout: America, you’ve got problems, and those problems have their provenance on Capitol Hill.
Running against the “Do-nothing Congress” may have worked well for Harry Truman, and running against Washington is a time-tested tactic for many aspirants to higher office, but where does this get us?
It might work out OK for Obama. He has pretty much made being “above it all” his raison d’être, and by avoiding direct engagement with the big issues of our day, he might be able to slough off some of the Beltway taint. But where does it leave the rest of the Democrats? We really don’t have to ask because we have an example, it’s called the midterms. Obama did plenty of Congress-bashing during the summer of 2010. He railed against establishment Washington, even though he and his party had been that establishment for the previous twenty months, and when the dust cleared, America had the “divided government” Obama likes to point out “America voted for.”
Except they didn’t. America doesn’t elect our government on a national proportional basis. America votes state by state and district by district, and if voters in those specific races voted at all, they voted against a disappointing two years, not for a political concept.
And if the antagonist in Obama’s campaign narrative is Congress, then, in practice, the villain he wants Americans to rally against is elected government itself.
And that’s not only dangerous to sitting members of Congress, that’s dangerous for the democracy. It affirms the agenda of the elites, it confirms the fears of the TEA parties, and it will make voters across the board more cynical and less inclined to get involved.
So, did the president or his political team read the Westen piece, and did they decide to refine this Congress-as-villain narrative as an answer? I have no way of knowing, of course, but if they did, I do know they’re doing it wrong.
But in crafting his critique of the president’s path, Drew Westen also might have made some mistakes. First, Westen doesn’t allow himself to take the next step—beyond story-craft to actual belief. In wondering “What happened to Obama,” Westen can’t bring himself to conclude the answer might be “nothing.” It is possible, sad though it may be, that while America thought it was electing a man from the party of FDR, it instead got a confirmed Hooverite. So much of Obama’s language of late seems to point that way, not to mention his policies, and let us not forget the time he spent raising elbows with the magical marketeers at the University of Chicago.
Second, Westen also bemoans the “dialing for dollars” culture that pervades and pollutes national politics. Huffington Post senior Washington correspondent Dan Froomkin also tried to explain it earlier this week:
Progressives say Washington’s governing class absorbed its bias toward austerity — and, implicitly an agenda favoring the wealthy — by osmosis.
“The people who do fundraisers are the people who don’t want to pay taxes,” [Roosevelt Institute fellow Rob] Johnson said.
Politicians “spend an awful lot of time calling people with assets,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal think tank. “You don’t spend a lot of time with people who aren’t affluent, and you certainly don’t have extended discussions with them about economic policy.” Over time, Borosage said, “you develop a set of self-justifying rationalizations,” he said.
Westen makes it seem like it is virtually impossible for the president—or any president, really—to both single out Wall Street and Corporate elites for blame and simultaneously ring them up for campaign cash. But Westen doesn’t call out the president for failing to capitalize (as it were) on his ability to change that culture.
Obama has hinted at wanting to be a transformational figure (and others have assigned that role to him, outright), and one of the things that once made that seem possible, at least to me, was the way he ran his 2008 campaign.
Prior to Obama, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign onward, the prevailing logic in national campaigns was that they had to emulate the Republican successes of the 1980s—chase big-donor money, and you can effectively buy all the votes you need. However, with Hillary Clinton having locked up much of the early establishment money in ’08, the Obama campaign set up an unprecedented (dare we say “transformative?”) structure for collecting small-donor contributions. . . and then they set out to motivate those potential small donors. Yes, in time, big-donor bucks did fund half of Obama’s awesome campaign coffer, but initially the strategy was seemingly the opposite of the Terry McAuliffe-Bill-and-Hillary Clinton tack—instead of chasing the money to woo the voters, Team Obama chased the voters to woo the money.
But that is not what the Obama campaign is doing this time. Publicly hostile to his liberal political base, and privately nervous about his Obama for America, small-donor fund-raising base, the president is heading straight for the big money for 2012. The Chicago campaign staff is already bragging about its bankroll. Obama has been courting classic big-ticket bundlers at old-school four- and five-figure-a-plate fundraisers, and, in fact, on his way back from Michigan, the president stopped off in New York for just such a soirée.
It is in this case where Obama once proved that he could change the game—that he could be a transformational figure—and it is here where he has pointedly chosen not to. There comes a point where we have to stop looking for outside factors that prevent the president from accomplishing what we want, and admit that Barack Obama might be accomplishing exactly what he wants.
What happened to Obama? He was elected president. All other answers are based more on hope than change.