Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Elias Isquith is unhappy with my recent defense of President Obama as a pretty effective legislator:
What struck about both of their defenses [i.e., mine and Andrew Sullivan’s] is the utter lack of recognition of the President’s role as a rhetorical, political figure. Look at how Drum’s argument side-steps this issue entirely, as if Obama’s job was to be Legislator in Chief.
Well, you can only cover just so much ground in a single blog post, and that one happened to be focused on his legislative record. Anyone interested in my take on Obama’s rhetoric should read “The Great Persuader”—not because it’s especially brilliant, but because I wrote it in 2008. I’ve been keenly aware for a long time of Obama’s limitations as a national storyteller.
Which brings us to Drew Westen. Isquith is a big fan of Westen’s work and points us to an essay he wrote in the New York Times today about Obama’s rhetorical failings. It’s classic Westen. As it happens, I’m also a fan of Westen’s basic message—politicians need to tell stories with emotional appeal, not just rattle off policy positions—but when Westen actually puts his advice into action, the results are a train wreck. Here’s the speech he thinks Obama should have given at his inaugural:
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.
This is what would have changed the political dynamic of Obama’s first two years in office? Color me unconvinced. In any case, if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, Westen finally gets to his core complaint at the very end of his piece:
When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.
This is a familiar lament, but to Westen’s credit, it really is the core left-vs.-left argument about Obama: Would he have done better and accomplished more if he had laced into his enemies from the start? If he’d made it crystal clear, over and over and over, who the villains were: Republicans, bankers, corporate fat cats, and the rich? Would this have inspired the public into supporting the full-throated left-wing agenda that Westen obviously yearns for?
Maybe my vision is as limited as Obama’s, but I just don’t see it. As my 2008 piece makes clear, I think Obama’s rhetorical style really is too diffuse and too vague to move public opinion significantly. And I also think he had plenty of leeway to take on Wall Street and the banking community much more forcibly than he did—though that’s a policy disagreement at heart, not a rhetorical one.1 More broadly, though, there’s precious little evidence that turning into a fiery partisan warrior would have impressed the public much at all. What it would have done is unite the Republican Party even more unanimously against him. Most likely that means no stimulus, no financial reform, no DADT repeal, no nothing. He might still have gotten healthcare reform thanks to the filibuster-proof majority Democrats had in the Senate for a few weeks at the end of 2009, but that’s it. Your mileage may vary, but I think that’s a much worse outcome for Obama’s first two years in office.
Beyond this, 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 stem-winders would have thrilled me, I doubt they would have produced anywhere near as much.
1What I mean by this is that once Obama and Tim Geithner chose the banking policy they did—basically soft recapitalization instead of temporary receivership and reliance on Basel III instead of tough financial reform—it was almost impossible to then turn around and start delivering towering diatribes against Wall Street. The policy determined the rhetoric, not the other way around.
UPDATE: Both Joe Klein and Paul Krugman agree with Westen and, implicitly, disagree with me. They make some good points, as did Westen, and if this were an even-numbered day I might be on their side. Still, I’m just not sure I see it. 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.
Besides, Obama’s biggest problem is a lousy economy, and that’s much more the result of poor policies than poor messaging. He should have fought for a bigger stimulus; he should have fought harder for cramdown legislation; and he should have made more and better appointments to the Federal Reserve. Better storytelling would have made a difference, but not nearly as much as better policy.