Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Drew Westen on Obama Administration's Failure: Unprincipled Pragmatism and Lack of Coherent Narrative Play into Hands of the Right

With his accustomed clarity, Drew Westen incisively analyzes the primary shortcoming of the Obama administration in an essay at Alternet today.  As he notes, from the very beginning of this administration, the president and his circle of advisers refused to offer the nation a coherent narrative about their fundamental principles, about why they chose to address the nation's serious economic and other problems in the piecemeal, pragmatist, always-tacking-right way they chose after the administration and its charismatic leader were elected by a strong popular majority.

The upshot is the surge of populist anger we now see sweeping the nation, which will very likely return the House to Republican control and the nation to a politics of gridlock--even more draconian gridlock than we've seen in the past several years while a fiddling White House vacillates and plays footsie with the rabid right as the nation burns, while quisling Democrats who are Republicans in blue dog suits collaborate with the Republican party to block and gut legislation, and while Republicans turn their store over to the theocratic loonies.

As Westen notes, Mr. Obama and his circle of pragmatist advisers might have addressed the economic and employment crisis of the nation this way:

The "Obama Doctrine" should have been that Americans who want to work and have the ability to contribute to our productivity as a nation should have the right to work, and that if the private sector can't meet the demand for jobs, we have plenty of roads and bridges to fix, new energy sources to develop and manufacture, and schools to build and renovate so our kids and workers returning for training can compete in the 21st century global economy. From having spent much of the last four years testing messages on a range of issues, from immigration to taxes and deficits, I can say with some certainty that nothing John Boehner or Eric Cantor could say could come within 30 points of generating the enthusiasm -- particularly among swing voters -- of a message that began, "We don't have a shortage of work ethic in this country, we have a shortage of work."

But they didn't.  They chose, instead, a melange of half-hearted economic fixes that put big banks and Wall Street in the driver's seat.  And they're now paying the price for their lack of vision and courage, as we face the fall elections.

When health care reform came to the table, they tacked right and right again--needlessly so, Westen argues, on the basis of his own sampling of the effects of various strands of messaging about health care reform in the populace at large.  I'm particularly intrigued by the following observation:

On health care, the president and his Cabinet fan out all over television to "reassure" the public on health care that abortion won't be covered (thanks for the reassurance, but most of us didn't find that reassuring), that domestic partners won't be covered, and that immigrants won't be covered. None of these issues needed to be conceded. (I know this because I tested messages on them, and well- messaged progressive positions on them would have boosted the popularity of the bill with swing voters.)

Read the essay for yourself, if you can stomach it--if you can, that is, stomach this fine analysis about what might have been, had the administration listened to the appeal for a coherent narrative centered on principles that Westen and others have persistently offered since the Obama presidency began.  Only to be attacked as naysayers of the "professional left" who know nothing about governing in the real world.

The real world is about to meet the loosey-goosey pragmatism the president and his team chose as their governing style, after promising us real change.  And the collision is not going to be pretty.  Not for any of us.

P.S. I should note that the phrase "unprincipled pragmatism" is mine and not Drew Westen's.  I'm sketching notes on this topic, which I'll share in a day or so on this blog.

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