[Marxism] What Happened to Obama?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 7 08:38:21 MDT 2011

(This article says nothing new but the fact that it appears on page one 
of the NY Times Sunday Review speaks volumes.)

NY Times Sunday Review August 6, 2011
What Happened to Obama?

Drew Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and the 
author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate 
of the Nation.”


IT was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems 
to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 
8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural 
address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who 
could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious 
occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things 
to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting 
to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing 
months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings 
and arrows his opponents threw at him.

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the 
stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what 
is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and 
to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories 
with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to 
be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 
100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 
years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read 
and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and 
values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the 
events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling 
and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the 
three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as 
research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments 
tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just 
lay out “the facts of the case.”

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation 
was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was 
spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs 
that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs 
they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a 
decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market 
dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, 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.

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.

But there was no story — and there has been none since.

In similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a 
promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to 
keep trying until he got it right. 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.”

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle 
of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, 
Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic 
transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban 
industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of 
wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s 
what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that 
power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so 
unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer 
emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the 
cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts 
to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power 
over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land 
and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans 
elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the 
arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 
famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it 
bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and 
his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which 
conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies 
perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has 
broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not 
mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their 
full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that 
cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth 
of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that 
whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective 
response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true 
and repugnant face in public.

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest 
levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate 
influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the 
eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the 
people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of 
it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in 
storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had 
the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the 
public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the 
New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a 
century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the 
problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized 
creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers 
back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the 
economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome 
it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling 
of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak 
with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president 
led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that 
had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the 
tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his 
presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning 
economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big 
stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown 
to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus 
that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to 
feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another 
Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a 
counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not 

To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the 
half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that 
government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea 
what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no 
one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative 
imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a 
paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform 
was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more 
uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit 
card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were 
already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks 
was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing 
didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that 
they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going 
to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t 
get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment 
insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal 
exhortations after bargaining it away.

What makes the “deficit debate” we just experienced seem so surreal is 
how divorced the conversation in Washington has been from conversations 
around the kitchen table everywhere else in America. Although I am a 
scientist by training, over the last several years, as a messaging 
consultant to nonprofit groups and Democratic leaders, I have studied 
the way voters think and feel, talking to them in plain language. At 
this point, I have interacted in person or virtually with more than 
50,000 Americans on a range of issues, from taxes and deficits to 
abortion and immigration.

The average voter is far more worried about jobs than about the deficit, 
which few were talking about while Bush and the Republican Congress were 
running it up. The conventional wisdom is that Americans hate 
government, and if you ask the question in the abstract, people will 
certainly give you an earful about what government does wrong. But if 
you give them the choice between cutting the deficit and putting 
Americans back to work, it isn’t even close. But it’s not just jobs. 
Americans don’t share the priorities of either party on taxes, budgets 
or any of the things Congress and the president have just agreed to 
slash — or failed to slash, like subsidies to oil companies. When it 
comes to tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are united across the 
political spectrum, supporting a message that says, “In times like 
these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it.”

When pitted against a tough budget-cutting message straight from the 
mouth of its strongest advocates, swing voters vastly preferred a 
message that began, “The best way to reduce the deficit is to put 
Americans back to work.” This statement is far more consistent with what 
many economists are saying publicly — and what investors apparently 
believe, as evident in the nosedive the stock market took after the 
president and Congress “saved” the economy.

So where does that leave us?

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — 
and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. 
The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit 
reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of 
describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are 
evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words 
that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for 
handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This 
pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent 
recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s 
storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that 
we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production — two 
methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather 
Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use 
Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a 
budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely 
decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior 
citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an 
economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on 
immigration reform after deporting a million immigrants in two years, 
breaking up families at a pace George W. Bush could never rival in all 
his years as president.

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both 
sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want 
on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. 
That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many 
in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values 
speaks volumes — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if 
you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I 
will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist 
and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have 
succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb 
— that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, 
reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians 
who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is 
simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a 
character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other 
time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the 
campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his 
biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for 
president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a 
singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 
12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and 
that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" 
(instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is 
being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by 
a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to 
take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps 
those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in 
“Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there 
— the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he 
is and what he believes in.

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has 
already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that 
tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them 
to dial for dollars — in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds 
of millions of dollars. 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. Whether 
that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with 
potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to 
govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory 
platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity 
candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued 
the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his 
character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the 
message of confrontation.

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation 
cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the 
wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when 
the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the 
last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise 
astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our 
parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 
percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations 
between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does 
not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public 
opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the 
Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

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