In the Arena

Lame Obama

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I suspect that this piece by Drew Westen is going to cause a ruckus. Certainly, it will crystallize the concern in the Democratic Party about Barack Obama. A lot of us have been picking around the edges of the problem of Obama’s curiously unsatisfying presidency–I’ve written more than twice about the President’s failure to directly take on the miscreants in the financial community who caused our economic crisis–but Westen puts it all into context, starting with Obama’s failure to lay out the purpose of his presidency in his inaugural address. I’m sure that a great many unfair expectations were placed on this President, but then, “hope” was his word… 

and much of his election strategy was an implicit promise that something very new and exciting was about to happen.

There are several major Obama decisions that I think were problematic. In retrospect–hindsight being a brilliant tool for acute strategic analysis–the decision to pursue universal health care rather than staying focused on the economy (or even going with his campaign vision of a “green” rescue plan for the economy) was the biggest blunder. That the new health care regime won’t kick in until after the next election made it worse. To this day, people seem to know more about what’s not in the bill (“death panels”) than what’s actually in it.

But that’s not really what Westen is writing about. Most of Obama’s policy choices have been the right ones. He’s a sane, smart, admirable guy. The trouble, though, comes from his inability to explain these decisions to the public. And this is where Westen’s piece is valuable: there is a difference between eloquence and narrative strength. Obama is often eloquent–and not just in a big room, big rhythm sort of way; his ability to explain complicated problems using simple words can be extraordinary. But he has never deployed these skills in service of the larger story–never really explained where we are as a country, how we got here and–Westen is spot on here–who the villains have been. He has never gone to war on behalf of the American people. Consequently, as I found on my coast-to-coast road trip last September, most people really have no idea who he is or where he stands.

They still like him, and many still admire him. And I would guess, given the craven quality of the Republican field, he would still have to be reckoned a strong favorite to win re-election. But re-election isn’t everything. The country is adrift. It has lost much of the can-do, let’s-get-it done spirit that made America America.  At a similar point in his presidency, Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “malaise” speech–the word was never actually used–that was an accurate description of the problems we faced then (it reads very well 30 years later) but a complete bummer. The public needed to hear more than a description of what wrong; it needed to be told what was necessary to make it right. Ronald Reagan came along, posited optimism and an easily comprehensible set of principles–and Carter was history.

I am not suggesting Obama is Carter. But they do share a trait: an inability to tell a story. The most popular stories have good guys and bad guys. If he wants to be re-elected, Obama is going to have to start telling us who the bad guys are and what he plans to do about them.