News & Politics

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.

Zakaria's collection of neo-liberal truisms about the inexorability and inescapability globalization won't meet Americans' hunger for jobs and clarity. The implication is that for other peoples to advance economically, middle-class Americans will have to lose a lot of ground. None of the other musicians in the orchestra of high-minded opinion has interrupted his conducting of its perennial medley, "This is the Best of All Possible Worlds."

I got a bit nasty about this last week here, when Zakaria tried to dodge Westen's arguments and pull rank as a political expert. So let me now simply quote the expert critics and highlight the awful precedents and premises they're leaning on:

1."Westen's lengthy, attention-grabbing Sunday New York Times op ed is not a strong criticism. It's parody of liberal fantasizing.

"I think liberals have a hard time holding on to power and being comfortable with ... the compromises it takes to hold with power. I think it`s something in the liberal psyche.... I am not the psychologist here, but liberals turn against every single Democratic President with regularity. That was what the whole Nader campaign in 2000 was about, this fury that Clinton was a sell out."

"[Westen's] argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science...."

--Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic and on Charlie Rose.

2."Over the last week liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached. But their ire was directed not at the Tea Party or the Republicans but rather at Barack Obama.... because of his persistent tendency to compromise."

"As the New Republic's Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, this criticism stems from a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry. In this view, writes Chait, "every known impediment to the legislative process--special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion--are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech."

"This has been a running theme ever since Obama took office. I think that liberals need to grow up."

"I`m not going to get into the what-ifs of a professor, you know, who has never run for dogcatcher advising one of the most skilful politicians in the country on how he should have handled this.

--- Fareed Zakaria, on CNN, on Charlie Rose, and again in two blog post s, one of them entitled, "What Liberals Fantasize About."

3. "Perhaps most notably, Andrew Sprung scrutinized Westen's piece and discovered that Obama has publicly and repeatedly stressed some of the identical messages Westen wanted to hear from the president. Maybe the professor missed those speeches; maybe he didn't check."

-- Steve Benen, The Washington Monthly

4."Obama has been left playing defense, playing to get the least-bad deal... That's what's producing all the 'What happened to Obama?' talk and its silly variants.... It's all nonsense. Obama is smart, decent and tough, with exactly the right instincts about where the country needs to go. He has accomplished a lot more than he's gotten credit for -- with an opposition dedicated to making him fail. But lately he is seriously off his game...."

--Tom Friedman, trying to square the circle of his confusion by blaming both Westen and Obama.

5.The substance of Westen's attack boils down to Krugman Krugman Krugman: the stimulus was too small. Westen conflates this original sin with an alleged rhetorical/political sin that begs the question of how, or whether, Obama could have gotten a large stimulus through Congress. The implication is that he could have done so by attacking the villains...."

-- Andrew Sprungxpostfactoid

One thing that all these uncomfortable defenders of Obama share, besides their alarm about Westen, is disdain for "liberal" politics and policies. Some even use the L-word openly as an anathema hitherto employed only by conservatives (and, awhile back, Communists!)

Another thing they share is an astonishing minimum of self-awareness: Zakaria seems unaware that it was he and his ilk who "took to the airwaves and op ed pages," denouncing Westen as if expecting liberals to cower trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of their disapproval.

The bomb metaphors make you wonder who's trying to nuke whom. It was this crew that, far more than Westen, directed its ire not at the Tea Party or Republicans but at woefully outnumbered liberals, casting them as deluded Naderites who want to ruin Democrats' chances against Republicans.

They seem unable to imagine -- except by resorting, as Zakaria and Chait did, to the kind of psychologizing they blame on Westen -- why liberal insurgents keep arising to challenge Democratic incumbents, as Eugene McCarthy did LBJ and Ted Kennedy did Jimmy Carter. Maybe it's "something in the liberal psyche," Chait muses, as if he were a Walter Lippmann shielding statesmen, experts, and power brokers from knee-jerk liberals, or an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. rewriting The Vital Center to stop some reincarnation of the loopy leftist Henry Wallace, who almost undercut Harry Truman in 1948.

Westen, who is no Henry Wallace or Ralph Nader, wants Obama to win, substantively as well as electorally. Yet his essay frightened palace-guard realists who think that its challenge to what they understand about power politics opens a slippery slope to Naderite folly. If it's really come to this, they can't imagine why.

To their credit, Sprung and Mother JonesKevin Drum admit that they share many of Westen's criticisms. "I too have been driven half-mad in recent months by Obama's refusal to go to war with the GOP, his willingness to negotiate on their terms," writes Sprung.

"But we are not at the endgame yet," he adds, and if you click the links to his and others' comments above, you'll see most of them quoting and praising one another as if they were courtiers, consiglieres, and apologists of an imperium grown blind to its own unraveling.

Blame it on the Beltanschauung's absorption of political writers into delusions of philosopher-kingship. The Washington world-view -- which doesn't actually view much of the world except through polls, whose findings it refracts through the prisms of its own preoccupations -- induces stupefying pronouncements like this one by Chait:

"[H]ow could presidential rhetoric - sorry, 'story-telling' -- be anywhere near as important as [Westen] claims? The clear reality is that Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately..."

Gee, I seem to recall a President, Ronald Reagan, who was also called The Great Communicator. He was no policymaker like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, although he could and did compromise and found ways to keep his fervent supporters from noticing.

I seem also to have noticed a conservative movement and Republican Party that have gone pretty far on pure demagoguery -- sorry, "rhetoric"-- to advance their "starve the beast" strategy against government with unfunded wars, tax cuts, and Big Pharma boondoggles that George W. Bush pushed through as poison-pill pretexts for crisis-driven rollback -- this despite a Democratic Senate that, at times, might have filibustered him.

When Westen, on Charlie Rose, made it all-too painfully clear that Obama needn't compromise as much as he does, or forgo grand story-telling as much as he has, that prompted an eruption straight from Zakaria's elitist, Lippmannian id: "I`m not going to get into the what-ifs of a professor, you know, who has never run for dogcatcher advising one of the most skilful politicians in the country on how he should have handled this."

Well, what's driving all this? Personalities and ids aside, I think it's a by now all-too familiar syndrome of liberal-bashing by neo-liberals, and a set of false premises that the bashing tries to disguise.

Embarrassing Precedents

The Beltanschauung has many ways of snubbing, smearing, or squashing its critics. Watching Zakaria attacking Westen on Charlie Rose and elsewhere, I couldn't help but recall David Brooks attacking Ned Lamont, after he'd defeated Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Senate primary, as the emblem of a "vicious... Sunni-Shiite style of politics" whose adepts "tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious that they have to be vicious, too." I also recalled then-New Republiceditor Peter Beinart's leading a pundit pack that cast filmmaker Michael Moore as more dangerous to the republic than Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq War.

What we have here is an obsession with more than a Lamont or a Moore. It's theGhost of Left-Liberalism Past that spooks neo-liberals, who keep on summoning it and flailing at it in order to displace their growing anxiety about the compromises they themselves have made but would rather not acknowledge.

These are writers who've earned just enough standing and credibility in theBeltanschauung and the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling dispensation that it serves to forget that they may once meant to challenge its swaggering, degrading seductions and deepening inequalities. Yet these are basically good guys, too well-intentioned to be wholly comfortable defending what they're defending -- except when they can find enemies that are far worse, at home or abroad.

There are indeed such enemies, and how liberating it feels to find them! Advancing Beinart's "Good Fight" against Islamo-fascism and its supposed domestic enablers such as Moore and Lamont -- or advancing Zakaria's "good fight" against liberals, like Westen, who he thinks are luring us into rhetorical utopias -- spares these critics from having to think about threats to the American republic coming from much closer to home - even, perhaps from something that's a bit un-republican and elitist and perverse in themselves. Piling on Westen is a way of burying a civic-republican standard that would challenge compromises they've made but don't want to defend. (Remember, we're talking about writers here, not Presidents -- truth-tellers, supposedly, not politicians.)

Some of the villains of these "good fights" do deserve condemnation and opposition. The Beltanschauung isn't wrong, for example, to reject the old left's economic determinism, false populism, and worse as subversive of serious civic-republican challenges to the tawdry ethos in which we live and move and have our beings.

Beltanschauung's interpreters have been equally right (as I argued a decade ago in Liberal Racism) when they've condemned some liberals' and leftists' inflated racial and sexual identity politics, whose demagogues and paroxysms fragmented struggles for justice into narrow group demands.

Too often, liberal Washington tried to accommodate the worst of this with conscience-relieving gestures that never touched the deepening inequalities that, thanks to their meager interventions, now divide blacks from blacks and women from women, as well as blacks from whites and women from men. Some neo-liberals, perhaps especially people like Zakaria, have taken this up and traded on it, expecting leaders such as Obama to clothe what's unsustainable in that economy and ideology with the redeeming raiments of diversity. What a bitter irony it is that Obama, who has done so much to lift American's sights beyond the racialist strictures -- of liberals as well as conservatives -- that have bollixed so many struggles against economic exploitation, has to deal with an economy and ideology that are closing progress, anyway, to all but the elite.

My point here is that, maladroit and politically counterproductive though left-liberal reactions to injustices have often been, they've been just that -- reactive, more than causal. Obsessing about them ritualistically absolves neo-liberals, in their own minds, of their mis-identifications of the deeper causes of our crisis and the sources of a stronger civic-republican response. Reverting to fixations on what the late Michael Kelly called "sandalista" leftists in bourgeois bohemias is a dodge of their responsibility to criticize the configurations of capital, employment and consumption that are really eviscerating social trust.

Critics like those who've rushed to discredit liberals like Westen are really staging anthropologically perfect reenactments of the Salem witch-hunts of the 1690s, in which prominent opinion-makers identified false targets for a community's unexamined fears. Just as the witches weren't the real dangers, Westen, Moore, Lamont, Nader, and others aren't the real threats to the republic. They represent its reinvigoration against today's Lippmanns and Schlesingers.

False Premises

What neo-liberal apologists and the Obama administration are defending will have to be substantially re-thought and re-cast. Although the US is bound inextricably into many globally interdependent networks, it has been a progenitor of many of them and still has extraordinary leverage and responsibility in their development, not to mention some unusual civic-republican strengths to contribute to them.

It's true enough, as Zakaria says, that if the U.S. cracks down too harshly on big banks, they'll just leave for Switzerland and other countries. But has he or anyone explained why we wouldn't be better off if they did leave? Would they stop lending here? Do they contribute anything else to the American economy besides the negative talent that they seduce and entrap into unproductive, asset-corroding, soul-destroying machinations?

It's also true, as I reported Zakaria saying in my last post, that millions of the manufacturing and even service jobs once done by Americans can be done now by more workers abroad. But many American manufacturers have outsourced jobs and/or closed plants that were doing fine with a 15% rate of profit until their new, publicly traded conglomerate owners demanded a 22% rate of return. By what God given or natural right? By no right besides a long train of decisions by the corporate bought-and-paid for Congress or the courts and by global market pressures that no polity is supposed to challenge.

That Obama won't say this is Westen's point . That none of the writers who condemn Westen will say it, either, is a scandal in its own right. And what have they said about David Bromwich's arresting (and indicting, and, as far as I can see, convicting) Huffington Post essay, "Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency," which tracks the current president's policies and his appointments and dismissals of key policymakers against those of his predecessor. I won't presume to second-guess Bromwich's assessments here, but I'll look up what Chait, Zakaria, Benen, Sprung, Drum, and others have written about them - if they have.

We have here a number of disagreements, not just about the facts of the crisis but about which facts matter most - which premises, rules, and practices should govern a post-national, yet still national, world.

Must corporate capitalist currents submerge republican ones? Is there a political strategy or philosophy that can answer that question? Some of Westen's critics, like Mother Jones' Drum, seem commendably sensitive to the challenge. But I can't tell if any of them grasp how much of the answer depends on reviving grounded civic republican narratives - presented to young people in resonant language and symbolic images within potent rites of passage -- that test not only their courage and prowess but elicit their dedication to an inter-generational society.

To understand Westen's argument, it might help to understand how such rites have nourished America's civic-republican strengths and how and why they're breaking down. Kids flock to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings precisely because they're starved for the kind of "story-telling" the American republic itself has stopped providing - except when Obama seemed to embody and offer it in his 2008 campaign.

That he hasn't found ways to carry more of it into politics is the problem Westen puts before us. The corruption of rites of passage by marketing, self-marketing, consumer-marketing, and even predatory marketing in collegiate sports, and the degradation of "action" narratives in boys' story books by similar forces, is a capitalist problem as much as a "cultural" one.

Westen's critics don't get this. (Let me shamelessly commend my own long essay on this, "Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change," which fingers what consumer marketing is doing to civic virtue at the hands of corporate minions, not gender-bending leftists and "liberals.")

Somewhere near the bottom of all this lie philosophical questions that Westen's vociferous critics might want to examine more closely than life in theBeltanschauung allows. A liberal capitalist republic depends ultimately on a critical number of its citizens upholding certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor capitalist markets themselves nurture or defend, because they have to cater to fictions of individual autonomy - such as homo economicus -- that even Adam Smith knew couldn't be sustained without the cultivation of pre-market, pre-liberal sentiments of the village that it takes to raise a child.

You may believe with Smith or Paine that people can shape their destinies and become their best selves by devoting some of their higher reason to deliberating together about the common good of those villages, with plenty of room left over for self-interested commerce in the free markets and the instrumental rationality that sustain it. Or you may believe in an inherent human depravity and Hobbesian anarchy that make all this unlikely and that only a Leviathan can tame.

Whatever the case, we are drifting so rapidly toward the latter -- as markets are tear up republican rites and inclinations -- that our imbalance will have to be reconfigured somehow. A good society, like a healthy individual, has to achieve a balanced stride in on two feet: a left one of social provision, without which the virtues that conservatives cherish couldn't be cultivated; and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility, without which even the best social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

Like a healthy individual, a good society needn't notice that at any given instant all its weight is on one foot and not the other. It needs to keep both feet strong and moving in a balanced stride. And the obligation of republican writers - and, in a different way, Presidents - is to know and show others when that balance is off.

You may see today's imbalance differently than I do, but you can't take to a keyboard or a podium, inside the Beltway or anywhere else, and pretend that the balance can be adjusted by wise men without political struggle and deliberation. Your challenge is to uplift and broaden the conflict, not stifle it. That's what democracies and republics require.

There are several ways to do this. Obama is aware of them and has even practiced and written about some of them. Westen is reminding him of this, and the reminder stings, and that is why, when his essay appeared, the White House reportedly released a long list of talking points about it to writers who repeated them to the rest of us.

Obama deserves historic credit for elevating (indeed, abating) the crippling racial politics of our past, and he deserves to be released from expectations that he'll slay, singlehandedly, all the dragons of casino-financing, corporate-welfare, and consumer-marketing that are devouring the republic. But there remains a standard of truth-telling via the story-telling through which a great communicator educates, stirs, and perhaps mobilizes a body politic against its would-be exploiters and hostage takers.

It's a standard Obama has failed to meet, and his failure hurts others so badly because he seemed to have raised that standard from the dead. Westen is reminding him and all of us of that, too .

Neoliberal interpreters of the Beltanschauung, gazing into the rear-view mirror at the old liberal ghosts of their imaginations, see little more in Westen's challenge than the lunacy they saw in Moore's or Lamont's. It would be better if they looked into that mirror at themselves. They might notice that, as writers courting the powerful, they've fallen into a web of self-confirming associations, assumptions, rationalizations, lies, and alarums that's unraveling along with their prognostications.

Just this week, the Times "Sunday Review" section, which published Westen's essay, flummoxed his detractors yet again with a sardonic news analysis of "Why Washington Really Likes Itself" - and a column by Nicholas Kristof, "Did We Drop the Ball on Unemployment?" (The New Republic, to its credit, has been letting writer after writer, including the economists Robert Shiller and Jared Bernstein, clobber the contention that combative presidential speech-making doesn't much matter.

Kristof ends by asking, "Mr. Obama, with 25 million Americans hurting, will you fight - really fight !- to put jobs at the top of the national agenda?" So let me end by asking Andrew Sprung: Did you really mean to complain that "The substance of Westen's attack boils down to Krugman Krugman Krugman."? Or will you join Kristof in demanding better of Obama?

Sprung documents assiduously the times when Obama made at least some arguments that Westen suggests he didn't make strongly enough or at all. Yet, Sprung acknowledges, "demonstrating that Obama said the right thing on occasion does not mean that the... messaging was effective. In fact I feel my ignorance with regard to the mechanics and optimal frequency of presidential communication -- and the extent to which an economy that never really recovered shaped reception of message from the oval office. Westen's attack is not without substance. It's just so one-sided, it doesn't really help us to make a midstream assessment ...."

And let me ask Jonathan Chait, whose great intelligence suggests an even greater capacity for better analysis: Did you really have to wait for the Pew poll you cited this week to find it "amazing that a plurality [of Americans] wants Obama to confront the GOP more strongly."? To Chait's amazement, "non-trivial numbers of Republicans say that Obama should stand up to the Republicans."

Might there have been some sense, then, Jonathan, in what you called "Westen's Nonsense" before the Beltanschauung had found a poll? Might Westen have been helping to bend the arc of history, not just running to catch up with it?

In 2006, David Brooks urged his readers to avoid "parlor purity" and meet "savagery with savagery" in Iraq, where insurgents "create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent." He condemned Ned Lamont's insurgency against Vulcan and neo-liberal war-hawking, much as he more recently condemned Westen's rattling of the Beltanschauung with what Brooks, like Chait, considered wild-eyed, utopian demands.

But who set up this hall of mirrors in the first place? Who, trapped in their own ire and elitism, convinced that the world is a place too hard for liberalism and its civic-republican bulwarks, has wound up serving the global wrecking ball? Isn't it time these scribblers stopped peddling the line that people who want to challenge it need to grow up? Isn't it time we started reading Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, which recounts how movements based on cooperative power, from the one aroused by Tom Paine to others in India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, and even in the American South, have reconfigured vast, national security states without making compromises like those we've left Obama to make?

Isn't it long past time to accept the consequences of acknowledging that while George W. Bush abused the body politic and a productive economy, only Barack Obama has dampened the civic-republican hopes he aroused, and only he has declined to rescue capital from itself on behalf of a commonwealth? Won't a new republic have to emerge from better premises and precedents than those offered by Drew Westen's critics?