Monday, August 08, 2011

Selling A Narrative

Lumo and Krugman point me to Drew Westen's New York Times essay. Lumo, Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan don't like it, but Krugman does, and so do I. Westen's central point is that a good leader needs to have a narrative, a story, which incorporates and exemplifies what he wants to do and where he is taking the country. Teddy Rooseveldt and his nth cousin FDR understood that. So did Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy. Obama doesn't.

Like me, Westen is surprised that Obama, known for eloquent speech and one of the best literary stylists to reach the Presidency, doesn't seem to grasp that he needs to lead by word more than deed.

Westen no doubt puts off the conservatives with the somewhat rabble rousing content of the narrative he imagines for Obama, but even a quite different narrative would be fine if he could just articulate it coherently.


When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

[three paragraphs Blaming the Republicans...]

But there was no story — and there has been none since.

After comparing and contrasting some leaders who did lead he reflects on Obama's lack of experience and undistinguished prior career. He concludes with a bit of a rant:

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.