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. …
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.