Westen's Indictment

Drew Westen's piece yesterday highlighting Obama's failure to tell an effective "story" that would have led to Congress laying down and embracing a more progressive agenda is probably a cathartic read for liberals disappointed with Obama. It does, however, have quite a few problems -- namely the notion that "the public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led." I mean hardly -- mostly the country was relieved that Bush was no longer in office.  But it doesn't actually matter what the public wanted. What mattered was what Congress was willing to pass. And Congress was willing to pass a watered-down stimulus.

I'll say that I largely share Westen's critique that Obama bears a large degree of responsibility for failing to adequately address the country's economic problems. I think Obama should have started with a larger opening bid, and failing that, should have pushed hard for a second stimulus. The administration allowed its housing assistance program to be weakened, resulting in a program that has failed to stem foreclosures and allowed the housing market to continue dragging the economy down.

I don't buy that Obama was helpless to pursue other efforts at curbing unemployment, but that's mostly where my agreement with Westen ends, and mostly because I'm skeptical of his larger argument -- that Obama simply needed to tell an effective "story" to the American people. As Andrew Sprung notes, Obama gave speeches that mirrored what Westen wanted Obama to say that he supposedly didn't. It wasn't the stories that were the problem. It was the institutions -- namely the fact that a 40-person minority in the Senate made it so that any attempt to deal with the nation's problem could only be as progressive as the least conservative Republican in the Senate, because the GOP was blocking Al Franken from being seated. 

Mostly, however, I think political narratives are often bunk, and the power of the bully pulpit largely misunderstood. Any president is more likely to harden public opinion against him than persuade opponents by giving speeches.  The problem is not with the stories Obama is not telling but with things Obama failed to do. It wouldn't matter what the Tea Partiers were saying if the stimulus was adequate and unemployment was under 8 percent by now, just like it won't matter much how often Obama reiterates that the stimulus worked but was inadequate, because unemployment is still above 9 percent. These stories only matter so much as they resonate with the details of people's lives as they're actually lived. Right now, any story that places blame on the man in the Oval Office for the suffering Americans are currently experiencing is going to resonate, even if it's largely the fault of President Bush on whose watch the crisis occurred and Republicans in Congress who've blocked every good-faith effort at improving the situation. In fact, that's why they're blocking every good faith effort at improving the situation.

Would things be better if Obama actually, you know, pointed out that Republicans were to blame? I tend to think so, but I'm certain liberals would feel better about it. And so much as Westen's disillusioned piece symbolizes a real phenomenon more than it describes one, it may actually turn out to be yet another problem for the president. But on most domestic policy matters, it's important to understand that the president can only be as progressive or conservative as Congress. That's the story liberals need to keep telling themselves, because until they really have it memorized, every liberal president who gets elected is going to turn out to be a profound disappointment. They should worry less about telling stories and more about winning elections. 

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