In the ongoing wide and choppy wake of the op-ed analysis of the president's failures in the New York Times August 7th -- here is one more response, below, from my friend Mary Yeager, Professor of economic history at UCLA. While I personally don't find psychoanalyzing of politicians to yield many practical rewards, the approach certainly yields dramatic insights -- and Westen's piece was nothing if not provocative on the subject of "the narrative" and Obama.
Mary Yeager responds within the world-based-on-narrative Westen sets up -- but she highlights race in the plot of The Story and the election of Obama and the stories we continue to tell ourselves (history) -- about politicians, including about FDR. The question remains -- what is the best and most enlightening and engendering Story that Americans should be listening to right now?
Who gets to tell the Story -- and who listens and thus makes it Real, the Real Story?
And what's the Sad or Happy Ending we are moving toward?
I thank Mary Yeager for her thoughts.
Written from Montana woodshed, August 2011
The timeliness of the Westen piece, it's juxtaposition of leadership with unfolding policy issues, and its seductive psycho-logical narrative make it an important contribution to the public debates about economy, polity and society. My concern is that the character/leadership frame will produce unintended consequences, especially if the historical comparisons and broader analytical frame are not challenged. Will the right wing media and the disgruntled leftists find common ground in attacking Obama's leadership?
A compelling narrative needs to recognize the forces that are constraining Obama (the courts, the media blowbacks, the attacks, the anti- racial/welfare/big government fanatics). The article tells us more about Westen's analysis of Obama's character than about the elusive links between character and policy. It ignores the moral, gender, racial and broader cultural elements of Obama's presidency, while misinforming us about the historical comparisons with FDR and the economy of the 1930s.
There is just so much any one can do about character or identity. Obama lives it; Westen analyzes it. Even if Obama saw the man the author wants him to see in his being, so what? Westen, like so many media commentators, dares not introduce a mixed racial character into a psychological narrative, but it inheres in character, positions, ideologies, and attacks, unconsciously and in a way that colors everything. I say everything, because Obama's character necessarily flows out of his mixed race background as well as the life he has lived and the challenges he has faced. Obama may be a political newcomer on the national stage; his political experience percolates up from community organizing, but a mixed race black man deals with multiple political challenges every minute of every day. Although few people voiced this racial undercurrent around election time, consider this: "How would American react to an angry "black" man as President." Think about the different histories of Obama and FDR. Weston does not confront the elephant in the room. His omission also distorts his comparisons with FDR, the inauguration, and the alternative narrative he proposes.
Obama is who he is. Like all of us, his identities are ever-changing and situational. Yet, as President, the "freedom to choose" identities, as economist Amartra Sen, might phrase it, is constrained by a diffuse and fickle public who sees what they want to see. FDR was more "like" the majority of the voters than different. Obama may choose to downplay "race" as an identity marker, but he still contends with a public whose views about race range from supportive to hostile. Obama is a mixed race man who walks a delicate line, and a far different one that walked by FDR, who was both white and rich, despite being somewhat of a political novice (New York Governor and Navy Secretary.) The fact is that historically FDR attacked the white financial elite with public support, in the midst of a great depression that saw unemployment skyrocket to almost 25%. FDR could go after them, and did, because he was one of them, which is why he pissed off so many of the rich and the corporate elite.
The FDR speech in 1936 is an interesting one, in part because it proved to be a turning point for his policies and came after unemployment had begun its slow descent from a 25% high, after agriculture and industry had begun to improve, and after the financial sector had achieved major reforms. FDR's bully pulpit was big. His address resonated with a public whose interests were aligning but were not yet systematically coordinated by the media/court/corporate/fundraising elite. The 1936 speech was given when economy recovery was underway and opposition to the New Deal was intensifying from both left and right. FDR had little to lose in choosing to play the hand of reformer in 1936. Recovery was anemic but underway. The NRA and AAA programs had already been gutted by the Supreme Court, prompting FDR to launch a court packing plan that backfired but is revealing of FDR's chutzpah and self-image.
Obama's Inauguration illuminates differences in the cultural and economic crosswinds that confronted each President as well. Obama's election was a historic event. Despite his mixed race background, he was touted as the first black president, and everyone rejoiced. We felt good about ourselves not because we elected someone who knew how to solve problems that none of the white elite had yet figured out how to solve. We were giddy because Americans wanted to improve our moral position in the eyes of the world, which had sunk to historic lows on Bush watch. (The right on the other hand was fearful--yes fearful that a black man would push the Democratic Party more to the left, to bolster welfare and entitlements.) We wanted our "umph" back, our patriotism; we wanted to feel good about our character as a people. Obama beat Hillary Clinton (who probably would have managed better in a crisis if only because she knew first hand how to deal with men who try to fuck people over. Obama and Hillary needed each other. She helped to masculinize Obama, at least in the eyes of the public, and he feminized her image. Obama's inauguration speech was a disappointment, Westen argues, primarily because it avoided creating the right kind of economic narrative to solve the hard economic problems. But Americans voted for Obama in part because the election of the first black president helped enough Americans feel good about themselves, their character and the nation's standing in the world. Cultural concerns weighed heavily in Obama's election. Except for a prescient few, most of whom were outside the corridors of power, the depth and nature of the economic crisis was not yet fully grasped. Westen reads back the unemployment figures to inauguration day and neglects the cultural winds that swept Obama into office. We counted on him to pave the way for changing our culture. His speech reflected those expectations and his own understanding of his role in that cultural shift.
Westen's wish that Obama would have delivered a more persuasive narrative on inauguration day floats in psychological thin air. What does Westen think? That there would have been no reaction or blowback to Obama's dream speech on inauguration day? The crisis Obama faced on inauguration day was far different than that confronting FDR in 1936. Obama's crises hadn't yet spilled over to the real economy; most people thought the financial crisis was still largely confined to financial sectors/housing/mortgages. The elite were not coming forward with plans to solve the problems. If Obama had a weakness it was his unwillingness to look beyond the hallowed ivory tower for advisors. FDR delighted in selecting an eclectic group of advisors, in part, because the Great Depression had hit all sectors of the economy. Obama stuck with those already running the financial institutions, in part, I suspect, because the financial crisis was global in scope and timing was critical and immediate. FDR was a nationalist in his approach to the Great Depression. Obama confronted a financial crisis where investors continued to call at least part of the policy tunes. Interests were not simply American corporations. They were global market players like China and India, both of whom were heavily invested in American securities. What the United States did mattered in global financial markets.
The bully pulpit that Obama has inherited has shrunk considerably since the time of FDR. There are so many more contending bullies, including an imperializing congress engaged in ideological warfare; numerous media outlets vying to control the message and spin alternative narratives; and a Supreme Court whose opinions have augmented the voice of corporations. Obama's messages were handicapped by filters from the outset. To be sure, he could have done a better job of selling this or that, but given that the cultural challenge was thrust upon him by a society going down the moral tubes, and that no one at the time knew how big the economic problem was or how to fix it, he punted. A single overarching narrative may have been impossible for FDR during the 1930s (although I doubt it). It is nearly possible, given today's concert of interests and the global nature of America's concerns, fighting a global financial war at the same time we are fighting a war on terror.
In conclusion, I appreciate Westen's piece which is articulate and crystal clear in its message. I have no problem with the efforts to get the "conscienceless greedy" to voluntarily pay taxes or their fair share, but the problem is not simply domestic but global as far as money markets go. The rich after all, spend more than the little guys as well. I think marginal rates should come up for the rich and taxes should be made fairer, but I also think that Obama has to get Congress and business generally to deal with the housing, mortgage job situation. Keynes warned FDR in the midst of the depression, that he shouldn't be too mean to businessmen because business might not invest when it was needed. Today's business sector doesn't want to invest because of the uncertainties, caused not only by our domestic policies, but also the precarious international Euro crises. Fragility and uncertainty abound. The FDR Westen narrative is too simple, so is an analysis that doesn't address the moral, structural and global aspects, as well as the blowback inherent in a two party civil war that is drowning out good sense.