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The Obama Wars: Why Do We Tear Each Other Apart Over Whether the President Is a Failure or Success?

The debate over Obama's role in the mess we're in is distracting progressives from the real fight.

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The piece drew quite a bit of passionate criticism. On the Charlie Rose Show , Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic mocked Westen – and disgruntled liberals more generally – as being hopelessly out of touch with reality. “It's a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to effect policis in Congress and to effect public opinion,” said Chait. Zakaria said that Westen was channeling Hollywood: “The president gets up and makes this incredibly moving speech, which is of course deeply liberal, the entire country cheers, and then all of a sudden all of our problems go away.” Calling that “nonsense,” he added, “the reality is that Obama is working within a very constrained political environment... and within that context look at what he's done. This is a guy that passed the largest stimulus in American history, he passed universal health-care which has been a Democatic aspiration since Harry Truman... And I'm a little hard-pressed to see what the great liberal betrayal has been.”

The panel then turned to a debate about what “Americans really want,” with Zakaria noting that polling the American people gets you nothing but a pile of contradictions-- they want low taxes, good public services and think debt is a pressing problem. Westen pushed back: “Actually, the American people have said since day 1 of this administration, 'we want jobs!'” Jobs, he argued, is “the agenda the president could have and should have pushed and didn't.”

The scorecard in this debate looks something like this: Zakaria and Chait are right when they say that moving public opinion isn't easy, but they battle a straw-man when they talk about Obama giving a single sweeping speech that changes everything – you move the discourse by repeating the same message again and again, personally and through surrogates. Yet Westen was wrong when he wrote, “there was no story — and there has been none since.” In his piece, he described five stories Obama had failed to tell the American people, but an examination of presidential speeches over the past two years found that Obama has in fact told four of the five.

In a larger sense, they're all correct -- and this gets to the heart of the Obama Wars: the two sides are employing very different levels of analysis. Zakaria and Chait are talking about legislative outcomes, and they're right. Obama's critics, by and large, haven't acknowledged what history likely will: Obama, faced with a devastated economy and an obstinate opposition, has arguably achieved more than one could reasonably expect given the political context. Obama's progressive critics often seem to overestimate the power of the presidency, and underemphasize the road-block that Congress has represented, even when the Democrats had large majorities in both chambers. Around 300 pieces of legislation passed the House before the GOP took it over, only to die at the hands of the Senate. If, say, 100 of those bills – many of them quite progressive – had passed the Senate over its majority of Republicans and blue dog Democrats, Obama's already impressive list of accomplishments would be that much heftier.

What Chait and Zakaria miss is the inseparable connection between the political discourse in this country and legislative outcomes over the longer term. Looking at the period between 2008 and 2012, one can argue that Obama has done an impressive job given the circumstances, but he has embraced inherently conservative narratives about taxes, spending and the role of government, much to the detriment of the progressive movement over the longer term. He has said that debt is the “greatest threat” facing the United States today, compared the government's budget to a household's, said that regulatory “uncertainty” was keeping corporate America from hiring, said that “entitlements” – a word no progressive should ever use – were unsustainable over the long run and essentially stayed the course on foreign policy. All of this validates conservative arguments and leaves Democrats trying to thread an incredibly thin needle. On Social Security and Medicare, for example, the party's message is that these programs will eventually bankrupt the nation, but that they can “strengthen” them – cut benefits – in a far less painful way than their Republican counterparts would.

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