JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 8, 2011
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 is a figure, like George Lakoff, who arose during the darkest moments of the Bush years to sell liberals on an irresistible delusion. The delusion rests on the assumption that the timidity of their leaders is the only thing preventing their side from enjoying total victory. Conservatives, obviously, believe this as much or more than liberals. But the liberal fantasy has its own specific character. It is unusually fixated on the power of words. Before Westen and Lakoff, Aaron Sorkin has indulged the fantasy of a Democratic president who would simply advocate for unvarnished liberalism (defend the rights of flag burners, confiscate all the guns) and sweep along the public with the force of his conviction.
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 an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.
Westen locates Obama's inexplicable failure to properly use his storytelling power in some deep-rooted aversion to conflict. He fails to explain why every president of the postwar era has compromised, reversed, or endured the total failure of his domestic agenda. Yes, even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan infuriated their supporters by routinely watering down their agenda or supporting legislation utterly betraying them, and making rhetorical concessions to the opposition. (Ronald Reagan boasted of increasing agriculture subsidies and called for making the rich pay "their fair share" as part of a tax reform that did in fact increase the tax burden on the rich; Bill Clinton said "the era of big government is over" and ended welfare as an entitlement; etc., etc.)
To find a case of a president successfully employing his desired combination of "storytelling" and ideological purity, Westen reaches back to the example of Franklin Roosevelt:
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.”
Westen's use of this example is wildly, redundantly incorrect, in ways that helpfully summarize his most fundamental errors. First, Roosevelt did not take office "in similar circumstances." He took office three years into the Great Depression, after the economy had bottom out, and immediately presided over rapid economic growth (unemployment plunged from a high of 24.9% in 1933 to 14.3% in 1937.) His administration's primary contribution to this rapid recovery was to eliminate the most harmful monetary policy error by loosening the gold standard.
Did Roosevelt promise to support expansionary fiscal policy to combat the depression? Well, yes, but only after initially promising to cut the deficit. Westen strongly implies that Roosevelt persuaded Americans to understand the efficacy of government spending in order to combat mass unemployment. In fact, he utterly failed to convince Americans to support fiscal stimulus:
Gallup Poll [December, 1935]
Do you think it necessary at this time to balance the budget and start reducing the national debt?
Gallup Poll [May, 1936]
Are the acts of the present Administration helping or hindering recovery?
Gallup Poll (AIPO) [November, 1936]
DO YOU THINK IT NECESSARY FOR THE NEW ADMINISTRATION TO BALANCE THE BUDGET?
7 NO ANSWER
As you can see, Roosevelt generally enjoyed broad public support despite having no success at persuading Americans to share his Keynesian view. (Westen subsequently writes, "if you give [Americans] the choice between cutting the deficit and putting Americans back to work," they'll favor the latter. But the problem is that Americans don't see that as a choice, which is wrong, but not a form of wrongness any president has succeeding in correcting.)
Roosevelt's fortunes are a testament to the degree to which political conditions are shaped by the state of the economy. Roosevelt was wildly popular during the recovery, which coincided with his populist 1936 reelection campaign. Yet Roosevelt's most populist governing period came after that election, when he took on the Dixiecrats. That period coincided with an economic relapse (caused by his premature abandonment of fiscal stimulus) which in turn severely damaged Roosevelt's popularity. All these facts are rather hard to square with Westen's narrative -- not a surprise, I suppose, given his professed favoring of simple narrative over complex facts.
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.
Westen 's complaint against Obama is rooted primarily in a lack of factual understanding of what Obama has done. Westen castigates Obama for promising not to support entitlement cuts without higher revenue and then turning around and supporting a deal doing exactly that:
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.
In fact, the budget agreement does not include any entitlement cuts. It consists of cuts to domestic discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement spending.)
Likewise, he implies that Obama supported the undermining of the coverage expansion in his health care reform by cutting Medicaid:
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.
This is also totally false. The budget agreement contains no cuts to Medicaid or to state budgets. The automatic cuts that would go in effect should Congress fail to agree on a second round of deficit reduction exempt Medicaid. Both Obama and the GOP have consistently said that Obama has refused to place the Affordable Care Act on the negotiating table. And, finally, states are legally required to maintain Medicaid benefits -- which is to say, Westen's scenario of fictional cuts to state budget resulting in the decimating of Medicaid could not happen even if it were real.
The most inexcusable factual errors in Westen's essay have been documented by Andrew Sprung, 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.