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Why Obama's Beltway Apologists are Letting Us Down

Progressive defenders of Obama need to stop trying to discredit critics like Drew Westen and be honest with Americans about the President and our politics.

 This essay, which has been linked hundreds of times since it went up two days ago on  Huffington Post, is as long (4300 words) as it is damning. I hope that you'll copy it onto a document and print it out in order to read it over the weekend and that you'll agree with me that the subtle horror of the rightward shift in "Democratic Party" public discourse I'm describing justifies its length.

My argument here isn't that the Obama apologists I'm knocking -- Jonathan Chait, Fareed Zakaria, others -- should abandon him, even though he's abandoned a lot of what most Democrats think he promised to fight for.

My argument, rather, is that his defenders should stop trying to discredit sharp critics of Obama, like Drew Westen, who've shown what kind of leadership the President still can and must exercise as a strategist and, yes, as a story-teller, the latter role being far more essential to good politics than some Beltway "realists" understand.

Westen's game-changing essay,  "What Happened to Obama?," landed in  The New York Times' "Sunday Review" section on August 7 like "a rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland," according to the blogger Andrew Sprung in a post titled, none too gently,  "A Lover of Fairy Tales Casts Obama as Villain in Chief."

Westen's remonstrance hit  two liberal heartlands, and its effect in Obama's Washington was a lot different from its impact elsewhere. 

Elsewhere, Westen's broadside was reprinted dozens of times and quoted at length hundreds of times more. A full week after its publication it remained among the top ten most-emailed  Times articles. At a reception on Cape Cod on August 14, I met a Boston middle-school secretary whose spirits had soared on reading it and was still enthusing about it with co-workers and friends.

Not so the liberal Beltway operatives, whose Weltanschauung, or world-view, I hereby immortalize as the  Beltanschaunng. Never mind that some of them, like Sprung, share Westen's frustrations with Obama; most were desperate to discredit Westen's message, for reasons both understandable and objectionable. These deserve more scrutiny than they've gotten from Obama's defenders themselves because they show how far rightward the country's "mainstream" discourse has moved.

What's understandable to all liberals is that the President is in peril and that the likely alternatives to him are worse. What's objectionable is that his writerly defenders, truth-tellers by profession, aren't any more candid than he's been about the unsustainable premises and practices they've all ended up defending. So they're rushing to damn Westen for making "the best the enemy of the good," as Fareed  Zakaria clichéd this chorus' complaint.

What the U.S. needs now is a Tom Paine to explain why the beneficence of the Invisible Hand, liberating though it was when he wrote Common Sense, has morphed into a casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling juggernaut that's just as false and destructive as the divine right of monarchy and mercantilism were when Paine found the courage and clarity to shred them.

Westen, an academic psychologist and political consultant from Emory University and author of  The Political Brain, doesn't expect Obama to be a Paine. He does want him to address Americans' hunger for jobs partly by addressing their hunger for political narratives that explain what happened to those jobs and what it will take to create new ones.

On Charlie Rose on August 12, Westen sketched some battle strategies and story lines that are well within what his Beltway detractors laud as "the mainstream." He has as much experience with political trench warfare as they do, in and out of Washington , and a better understanding of what presidential story-telling can do.

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