Monday, August 8, 2011

The Westen Piece

Everyone is talking about Drew Westen's mega-article in the New York Times yesterday, 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.


  1. Jon, I actually did look at Roosevelt's '33 inaugural, noting Westen's sleight-of-hand to 1936 -- but I must say I thought it more or less fulfilled Westen's categorization -- he did say that Obama should have vilified the banks, as Roosevelt did.

    Another speech worth looking at, in which Obama did do the blaming Westen craves, in very impressive if cerebral fashion, was in March 2008 at Cooper Union, . I wanted to bring that into my post, but I thought that if there was nothing like it after Obama took office (and maybe there was...) it wouldn't really bolster the case.

  2. The trouble with all the defenses of Obama I've read in reaction to the Westen piece is that every single liberal I know, and the majority of liberal commentators, feel that the Westen piece had it exactly right. Anyone who really feels that Obama ISN'T wishy-washy, and that he HAS aggressively made the progressive case, is looking at a very different Obama than the rest of us see. You seem to see Churchill. We see Chamberlain.

  3. I'd be more curious about the effect of a long term narrative, as it becoming very clear that "wimp" and "obama" belong in the same sentence. At some point, whether it is true or not, you've got to deal with it.

    And you "midcentury" reference is pretty weak.

    I have been saying for a while that Obama made a huge mistake is not destroying the Republican party. We could have an 10 years of Good Feelings as conservatives regrouped. Perhaps pandering to the Tea Party will have the same effect.

  4. Thoroughly enjoying all the pieces de-bunking Westen's piece. It's a poisonous fairy tale for my fellow liberals to believe. The inverse of Obama's election where one man was going to save American liberalism and now he is the one man who is reasonable for destroying it. It also nicely absolves the left of all responsibility for the Tea Parties rise. How are those smug little tea bagging jokes looking now?

    I swear the Left's (lazy) belief in messaging rather than organizing is gonna be the be the death of it.

  5. Anonymous, the argument isn't 'whether or not Obama is wishy-washy' or 'has Obama made the progressive case'. It's 'does this matter nearly as much as Drew Westen claims.

    Charlie, how could Barack Obama (D) destroy the Republican Party? Does he have the secret password to the RNC headquarters?

  6. One doesn't have to go back to FDR is see why liberals are upset. GWBush, elected with less than half of the popular vote, got the his tax cuts passed in 2001 (before 9/11) in the senate 58-33. With votes from all the Republican senators (with the exception of John McCain, R-Ariz.)joined by 12 Democrats. While Obama tried to compromise with the Republicans on his health care bill when he had a real majority in both houses.

    Now one can blame the tax cut vote on the Dem senators but it was Bush that pushed them politically to do it and liberals haven't seen Obama pushing anybody, except liberals. Liberals just want Obama to push like W did only to the left.

  7. One thing amusing about all these FDR/Obama comparisons is that FDR in his day was attacked by the left for not going far enough in his economic programs. Huey Long, who might have launched a third-party bid in 1936 if not for his untimely assassination, assailed Roosevelt as beholden to big business and no different a president than Hoover. As for Roosevelt's handling of health-care reform, I turn to Wikipedia:

    "During the Great Depression in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Isidore S. Falk and Edgar Sydenstricter to help draft provisions to Roosevelt's pending Social Security legislation to include publicly funded health care programs. These reforms were attacked by the American Medical Association as well as state and local affiliates of the AMA as 'compulsory health insurance.' Roosevelt ended up removing the health care provisions from the bill in 1935."

    In hindsight, of course, we know FDR was a truly transformative president who helped create today's social safety net. By no means is Obama's presidency ever likely to achieve that kind of status. But the idea that FDR never made compromises that upset the left in his day is simply historical amnesia.

  8. From page 4 of Westen's article:

    A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held a president willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election

    Conservative, mixed-race commenter Shelby Steele wrote a pretty interesting book about Obama in 2007, called "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win". Steele described Obama as a "numinous negro", that special brand of black person whose saintliness is designed to assuage white guilt. Steele further assumed that all black people understand this inauthentic ruse, as a result Steele expected blacks would not support Obama.

    Steele obviously got the forecast wrong, but consider other iconic examples of numinous negros, circa 2007: Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. Since that time, Oprah's much-vaunted schools have come into question (as well as her personal life), Jordan had that horrendously classless speech at his HOF induction, and Woods...where do you even begin with that guy.

    To his credit, Obama has not revealed chinks in the armor of a numinous negro, as have those other three. So far, he seems like the real deal, at least personally. However, Steele's thesis is interesting, and repeated somewhat by Westen: the numinous negro is by definition inauthentic, I suspect that much of what worries people about Obama now is a perception of something like this inauthenticity. Obama could repeat verbatim all the words of FDR in this current crisis, and it still might not have anywhere near the same effect, if it is perceived to come from an inauthentic place.

  9. Obama could never have fit in the Oprah or Michael Jordan category. Many entertainers and athletes command universal respect, whereas that's virtually impossible for a politician. The common attitude toward, say, Colin Powell, would have changed dramatically had he actually run for president, much less won.

  10. Obama could have co-opted more "moderate" R in the first half of R9. Moved the pivot point a bit. Actual threats (do this or I'll campaign against you) and incentives (jobs, appointments) would help. Some was done (lahood, huntsman) although there isn't much evidence of it.

    Now, the interesting thing is the new Republican party is pretty much a minority southern party, and if BHO can figure away to explain away it's veto power it is going to be a minority party for a long time.

  11. It's a poisonous fairy tale for my fellow liberals to believe.

    Fairy tales are popular, though.

    This argument has now reached its Liberty Valance moment. ("This is the Left, sir. When the facts become legend, print the legend.") It'll remain a vital discussion in poli-sci circles, but in the larger world, it's now an article of faith, and faith does not need support from fact.

  12. Another thing Westen seems to miss is that the FDR who welcomed the plutocrats' hatred won his first term in a landslide and his second in an even bigger landslide. Dems had huge majorities in the House and Senate in FDR's first term and even bigger ones in his second. FDR was kicking an opposition when it was down - he wasn't moving public opinion as much as he was reflecting it. At least 60% of the people who listened to his fireside chats wanted desperately for him to succeed, and they were primed to agree with him before he uttered a word. (Also, expanding on Kylopod's point, it could also be that harsh rhetoric was one way FDR tried to keep liberals happy even though they disagreed with a lot of his policy choices.)

    FDR's rhetoric provides no lessons on how to govern in an environment where the parties are evenly divided and a large percentage of the population is actively hostile to whatever message the president decides to convey. FDR could focus on energizing his supporters without worrying about energizing his opponents, because he had no serious opponents to energize. That does not describe Obama's situation, nor does it describe the situation of any other Dem prez since FDR, except LBJ (to an extent). Maybe that's why Westen has to go back to the thirties to come up with good, old-fashioned divisive rhetoric from a Dem president.

  13. But, as I said, if you go back to W's first term, one sees how it can be done, even before 9/11.

  14. But, as I said, if you go back to W's first term, one sees how it can be done, even before 9/11.

    Tax cuts are popular. They're the legislative equivalent of an open book test. My cat Max could get tax cuts through Congress.

    Bush's key parliamentary skill consisted in getting things people wanted anyways passed. Which is why SS isn't going down the toilet this afternoon on Wall Street.

    No form of HCR -- not single-payer, or Medicare for all, not an American NHS, not a Swiss model, with or without a public option -- was remotely as popular as a tax cut.

  15. HCR was only an example. Why didn't Obama say the Bush tax cuts are going to expire give me a better version?

  16. Having read both Westen's article and Andrew Sprung's often-cited reply, I think it should just be pointed out that Sprung actually concedes a lot of Westen's critique -- for example, that the fact that quotes can be found in which Obama "explained" some progressive policy or value doesn't mean he hammered away at the point as a president needs to in order to educate the public about things. Sprung, in fact, left me feeling that Westen was more right than wrong.

    I suspect this boils down to a couple of events -- that presidents can make all kinds of compromises and tactical retreats, but they get a reputation for toughness from one or two things they do, a couple of issues on which they make their stand (or draw their lines in the sand, if you prefer), and that Obama hasn't chosen those moments effectively. So, if Reagan fires the air-traffic controllers, and later says "Tear down this wall," he gets credit for standing tall and taking the fight to the other side even as he's actually making all kinds of deals with Tip O'Neill, Ted Kennedy and Mikhail Gorbachev. Obama "should" get similar credit for standing tall on HCR, especially after the Scott Brown panic, and he probably does get some credit on bin Laden, but events like the BP spill and the debt-limit debacle were obvious chances to say Westen-like things when the public seemed primed to receive them well, and yet he declined. Westen may not be right that good political narratives must have "villains," but I do think that people, and especially a president's supporters, want to see believe that the president is fighting for them, not just negotiating for them. It can be, maybe, just one fight every year or two that makes the difference in perceptions. I'm not sure Obama gets that.

  17. Perhaps the most important trait for a President in particular, or a leader generally, is: engendering confidence that, going forward, problems will be solved. Obama is almost Carter-bad at this.

    This isn't an academic matter. Its perception. When WJC said he felt your pain, surely no one believed that, but it transmitted the sense that he was working - hard - on it. Even outrageous examples - "heckuva job Brownie" - transmit some modicum of confidence, if only by the mere act of their expression. Follows is the classic Obama failure in this regard:

    Probably no one in Obama's cabinet has a more difficult or controversial job than Geithner. Has he done well? We're pretty smart people; we're not sure. Hasn't got much in the way of results, but on the plus side he's been immersed in this madness for several years; experience should count for a lot. Unless you're Michelle Bachmann, in which case you call for Geithner's removal, which is a bit like the village idiot saying Einstein shouldn't get tenure. What is Obama's response to Bachmann? Has there even been a "Heckuva job, Timmy" moment, or just tepid reiterations that Geithner's trying really hard?

    In fact, in the case of Geithner, Obama has never played his confidence-boosting trump card: his personal family connection to the Geithners. I'd bet the majority of hardened Obama partisans here are unaware that Peter Geithner (Tim's dad) worked on the same microfinance development projects in Indonesia with Obama's mother, 40 years ago. That's the kind of semi-personal detail that can be woven into a narrative of personal confidence, from Obama, that Tim Geithner is still the guy to get the job done.

    That is, of course, assuming Obama focused on convincing you that his people were going to get the job done.

  18. I think the problem with Obama's rhetoric is not that he hasn't said the right things at times (he gave a couple of good speeches this year about the deficits and taxes) but because of the media culture we live in, a couple of speeches aren't enough. He was totally drowned out by the Republican's 24/7 screaming about the deficit. So to cite a few examples of him saying the right thing doesn't change the fact that he failed to steer the debate and thereby lost control of the process.

  19. e500,

    The problem is that you really can't control the process. See, for example, George W. Bush after Katrina. Even with the White House and the whole GOP-aligned partisan press all pushing the idea that everything that went on was the fault of local & state gov't, no one bought it.

    Presidents can influence what people talk about (they definitely can do some agenda setting), and they can sometimes, in some conditions, influence how it's talked about, but they just can't control it. No matter what they do.

    And that's even before we get to whether changes in how people talked about things would have changed actual voting in Congress. The evidence there, again, is that it's a very uphill battle.


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