Photo credit: borman18 via Flickr/CC BY
What we've got here is, well ...
Obama blew it. How, when, and on which bill or negotiation he blew it will vary from observer to observer. Democrats, progressives, and moderates all agree that Obama blew it on something or other (conservatives uniformly detested him from the beginning, and would argue he blew it on everything) -- whether it was caving to Republicans on the debt ceiling, failing to explain his health care bill to the public, or abandoning climate and clean energy legislation altogether. Yet there's one over-arching failure that has encompassed all of these smaller ones, and perhaps caused them: His failure to engage America with any sort of compelling narrative or explanation for his actions.
If you read but one article criticizing Obama from the left, I'd recommend that you pass over the mountain of relevant Paul Krugman columns and head straight for an op-ed published in this weekend's New York Times, What Happened to Obama?
Written by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and one of the Democrats' leading strategists, the piece posits that Obama's great failure is that of a communicator -- surprising, because he's such a gifted orator. But they're not the same thing. From a psychological standpoint, humans are designed to process information in specific ways -- we rely on stories, tales, narratives to understand the world around us. And the nation thus relied on Obama to clearly explain the crises we faced and propose in certain terms how he was going to fix them. He did neither.
Here's a key passage, discussing how Obama failed to pursue a large enough stimulus package to revive the economy, and then failed to adequately explain why he supported the one he did -- and how that set the trend for his subsequent failures:
To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, "stick." Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would "bend the cost curve"), or why "credit card reform" had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn't seem to be.This is also why the Democrats' attempt to pass clean energy and climate legislation failed, why it's so easy for the Republicans to bash the EPA, and why the largest offshore environmental disaster in US history yielded not an ounce of policy change. There was no story. No compelling reason to care about any of it, delivered from the office from which we expect such guidance. Obama let free the reigns of the national narrative, and let it be sculpted by his fiercest critics.
All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they're still unemployed, they're still worried about how they're going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can't get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.
There's been no drive to explain how climate change threatens the United States, no stories about the American suffering it's already causing. Instead, the airwaves are filled with assertions that one of the strongest scientific consensuses in modern history is a hoax.
There's been no effort to tell a story about how the EPA prevents the nation's children from becoming asthmatic, how it saves lives and protects public health from polluters. Instead, we hear call after call from the right about how it "kills jobs" and how they're going to shut it down. And people believe those calls.
The list, of course, goes on. But you get the point. In losing control of the larger, over-arching narrative, Obama lost track of the rest, too. Now he's forced to squeeze himself into the narrative drafted by the Tea Party and the hard right -- that government spending is for some reason the chief problem (when we should be focusing on jobs), that no, his health care plan won't kill your grandmother (so just give it a chance!), that yes, I suppose it's too expensive to tackle climate change right now (so I won't bother even talking about it in public).
Essentially, he allowed himself to become a rhetorical punching bag instead of forging the rhetoric necessary to engage Americans -- and lead them out of a crisis.