Saturday, August 13, 2011

Drew Westen and Obama’s Passion

Drew Westen
Drew Westen’s “What Happened to Obama’s Passion” (New York Times 8/6/11) has been sent to me by more friends and readers than any other I can remember.  It clearly struck a chord with many who are feeling disappointed and disillusioned with President Obama’s leadership. 

To me, Westen is “the-glass-is-half-empty” incarnate.  (See my 8/3 post “My thoughts on the debt deal.”)

So I was gratified to watch Fareed Zakaria, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, and Jonathan Chait, Senior Editor of The New Republic, debate Mr. Westen on The Charlie Rose Show the other night.  If you’ve been taken in by Westen’s piece, I highly recommend that you watch the Charlie Rose segment by clicking here.

Rose said he set up this particular line-up of guests because -- 

If you do what I do, this is a perfect storm.  First you have somebody write something, then you have someone respond to it, and then you have someone come along in Time magazine and talk about all of them.

After watching and appreciating the debate, I was curious to read the Chaitt and Zakaria pieces Rose referred to, so I tracked them down.

Chaitt’s piece appeared in The New Republic on 8/8 with the title “Drew Westen's Nonsense.”   Here are some excerpts:

There are some strong criticisms to be made of the Obama administration from the left, especially concerning Obama's passive response to the debt ceiling hostage crisis, and his frightening willingness to give away the store to John Boehner. I've made many of these criticisms myself. But Drew Westen's lengthy, attention-grabbing Sunday New York Times op-ed is not a strong criticism. It's a parody of liberal fantasizing. ....

Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total and uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon. ...

Obama took office at the cusp of a massive worldwide financial crisis that was bound to inflict severe damage on himself and his party. That he faced such difficult circumstances does not absolve him of blame for any failures. It sets the bar lower, but the bar still exists. How should we judge Obama against it? I would argue that both the legislative record of 2009-2010 and Obama's personal popularity level exceed the expectation level -- facing worse economic conditions than the last two Democratic presidents at a similar juncture, Obama is far more popular than Jimmy Carter and nearly as popular as Bill Clinton, and vastly more accomplished than both put together.

Obviously this is the crux of the dispute, and I don't have the time and space to defend this larger judgment here. But Westen offers almost nothing but hand-waving and misstatements. He blames Obama for the insufficiently large stimulus without even mentioning the role of Senate moderate Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass it, in weakening the stimulus. An argument can be made that Obama could have secured a larger stimulus through better legislative tactics, but Westen does not make this case, or even flick at it. A foreign reader unfamiliar with our political system would come away from Westen's op-ed believing Obama writes laws by fiat. ...

Chaitt concluded:

The most inexcusable factual errors in Westen's essay have been documented by Andrew Sprung [“A lover of fairy tales casts Obama as villain-in-chief,”], who points out some of the occasions Obama has used exactly the kind of rhetoric Westen accuses him of refusing to deploy. Westen is apparently unaware, to take one example, that Obama repeatedly and passionately argued for universal coverage. The fact of his unawareness is the most devastating rejoinder to his entire rhetoric-centered worldview. If even a professional follower of political rhetoric like Westen never realized basic, repeated themes of Obama's speeches and remarks, how could presidential rhetoric -- sorry, "storytelling" -- be anywhere near as important as he claims? The clear reality is that Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately. Even Drew Westen.

The Zakaria piece appeared in TIME and on Zakaria’s Global Public Square website on 8/12 with the title “Fareed's Take: Defending Obama's pragmatism.  It begins:

Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or even the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a President because of his persistent tendency to compromise. This has been a running theme ever since Obama took office.

I think that liberals need to grow up. ...

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment about Obama. "I have no idea what Barack Obama ... believes on virtually any issue," Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama's tendency to take "balanced" positions. Westen hints that his professional experience - he is a psychologist - suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama's disease.

Zakaria offers his own “simpler explanation” – with which I agree wholeheartedly:

Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by just one vote. He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks. He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney's plan in Massachusetts. And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things. Maybe he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars hoping that will jump-start the economy.

Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world's largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.

He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that you do need both tax increases and spending cuts -- cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

Is all this dangerous weakness, incoherence and appeasement, or is it common sense?

Zakaria’s opinion (and mine): common sense.

If you’re one of those who thought Westen had it right, I hope that Zakaria’s, Chaitt’s and Sprung’s comments give you a different perspective.  I know folks are frustrated.  I am too.  But a lot can happen between now and November 2012, and no doubt will.    

Keep the faith.  Hang in there.  Resolve to see the glass as half full.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The real reasons for the S&P downgrade

I’ve been struck in the short time since yesterday’s announcement by the way pundits of all political persuasions have been using the downgrade to support their point of view.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that the downgrade “is the latest consequence of the out-of-control spending that has taken place in Washington for decades.”

Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid said in a statement that the downgrade “reaffirms the need for a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines spending cuts with revenue-raising measures like closing taxpayer-funded giveaways to billionaires, oil companies and corporate jet owners.”

Press secretary Jay Carney, speaking for the White House, said it's clear Washington "must do better" in tackling soaring deficits and other economic woes.  According to the Associate Press:

A statement from Carney said talks that produced Tuesday's $2 trillion compromise on raising the U.S. borrowing limit had been too drawn-out and "divisive."

So -- was the downgrade due to the Democrats’ “out-of-control spending”?  Republican intransigence that resulted in lack of a “balanced approach?”  The “divisiveness” of the process?

Given this politicization, it’s important to read the actual S&P report to know the real reasons for the downgrade.  From the report’s page-one Overview:

  • The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics. 
  • More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011. 
  • Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon. 
And from the “Rationale” section of the report:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.  The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy..... [the] differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and ... the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently.

That “comprehensive fiscal consolidation” refers to the $3+ trillion “grand deal” President Obama and Speaker Boehner had been working on. 

We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.

Let’s be clear: the downgrade was the result of a deal that produced too little, too late, and revealed a government that was more dysfunctional (Jay Carney’s term “divisive” is right-on) than had previously been understood. 

Let’s also be clear: S&P has no preference about how the government chooses to reduce the deficit – all spending cuts, all revenue increases, or a combination of both.  S&P writes: 

Standard & Poor’s takes no position on the mix of spending and revenue measures that Congress and the Administration might conclude is appropriate for putting the U.S.’s finances on a sustainable footing.

They just want to see action that addresses the magnitude of the problem.

In order to get the country’s triple-A credit rating back, two things will have to happen.  The medium-and-long term debt and deficit need to be reduced. (Note that S&P said  nothing opposed to additional near-term stimulus spending to address the current weak economy.)  And civility will have to be restored to Washington.

Have no doubt that this first-ever downgrade of American’s credit rating will be used repeatedly by each Party as evidence that the other should be voted out of office in 2012. 

It will be important, therefore, that each of us remembers the facts and speaks up whenever liberties with them are taken.

For more information

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My thoughts on the debt deal

Well, it’s over for now.  The debt ceiling compromise has been signed into law. 

Like many, I’m disappointed, disgusted, discouraged and disillusioned with the process.  As President Obama said, it’s been messy and took far too long. 

But importantly, the debt limit was raised in time to avoid default, and the country won’t have to go through this again until after the election.  These two conditions turned out to be Obama’s lines in the sand, and we got them.

More than enough about the deal has been said by pundits and commentators, and their assessments range from “this is the worst ever” to “this is the best we could get.”  Neither Democrats nor Republicans are celebrating or claiming victory, and no one is proud of the process by which the deal got done.  I have nothing new to add in terms of interpretation or analysis.  It's time to move forward.

To put this deal in perspective and move on, it seems to me that I can choose to see the glass as half empty, or as half full.

If I choose to see the glass as half empty, I would probably be stuck wallowing around in thoughts like these:

Obama should never have agreed to link the debt ceiling to deficit reduction.  But since he did, he should have been more of a leader and put forward his own plan.  He should have fought harder for a balanced deal with revenues as well as spending cuts.  And when that failed, he should have invoked the Fourteenth Amendment and not allowed the Republicans to hold the country’s credit rating hostage.

But if I take that “glass-is-half-empty” view, what would it get me?  I’d be depressed, demoralized, and bemoaning Democrats’ chances for 2012.  

Or I can choose to see the glass as half full.  I can remind myself that without every Democrat and Independent now in the House and Senate, and without Barack Obama in the White House, the country would be much worse off in terms of my values and priorities than it is now, even with this less-than-great deal forced on us by blackmailers. 

I can remind myself that Obama and the Democrats must recapture the center to win in 2012 and that while this legislation has unsettled the base (which will vote Democratic anyway), it may help with that.  As Jonathan Chait wrote Monday in the New Republic:

The thinking is that Obama lost the support of a key centrist element of his coalition [in the 2010 elections] due to the perception that he’s an out-of-control spender who created big deficits. The perception is wrong, but that doesn’t really matter. Signing onto a major deficit reduction deal helps rebuild Obama’s image. That the deal consists entirely of spending cuts probably only helps.

And as Jennifer Steinhauer wrote yesterday in the NY Times:

The wrangling in Congress laid bare divisions within both parties, with the final passage in the Senate relying on the votes of the remaining center of each party — 28 Republicans, 45 Democrats and one independent voted aye — with the most right- and left-leaning members left ultimately on the sidelines.

The votes of Florida’s two senators reflect this divide.  From “Florida senators' debt votes reflect Washington divide” in today’s St. Petersburg Times:

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson [who voted aye] cast it as a grand compromise. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio [who voted no] called it a bad deal.

Consider this letter to the editor  in Monday’s New York Times:

No one seems to be pointing the finger at those most responsible for the debt-ceiling debacle we have witnessed in recent weeks — the Democrats who chose to sit out the November 2010 election. Low Democratic turnout was an important reason for the extreme right-wing victories in Congressional races.   And now, we are all paying the price.

Winning in 2012 will depend greatly on getting out the vote, and our ability to do so will depend greatly on how each of us chooses to think about this deal. 

Only if we put our disappointment and second-guessing behind us and choose to think the glass is half full will we be willing to do what it’s going to take. 

I choose to see the glass as half full.  Can you?

For more information: