Sunday, August 07, 2011
Obama: from audacity of hope to half-hearted capitulation
We all know that Barack Obama strongly believes in compromise. He emphasizes that point repeatedly. But many of his supporters are wondering: Does Obama believe in anything else?
Clinical psychologist Drew Westen, author of the provocative book, The Political Brain, probes the question and, like the rest of us, seems deeply puzzled. His piece in the NY Times, "What Happened to Obama?" reflects the vacuity and lack of any principled commitment that have been the hallmarks of Obama's "leadership" so far. In Westen's view:
"...when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. ....
"The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. ....
Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. 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. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling."
Westen moves on to analyze the possible causes of Obama's apparent inability to express or act upon any deeply held beliefs, beliefs of a kind that would, arguably, prove attractive to voters and crucial to the steering the Republic away from the obvious disasters ahead. But he notices a crucial feature in the way Obama talks and, evidently, thinks.
"When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability."
The essay ends with a chilling comment on the President's favorite quote from Martin Luther King, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Westen observes, "The arc of history can only bend so far before it breaks."
Another possible ending here might be: Perhaps Obama now lives in a different moral universe from the one Dr. King mentioned.