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Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted: December 20, 2009 09:34 PM

Leadership, Obama Style, and the Looming Losses in 2010: Pretty Speeches, Compromised Values, and the Quest for the Lowest Common Denominator

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As the president's job performance numbers and ratings on his handling of virtually every domestic issue have fallen below 50 percent, the Democratic base has become demoralized, and Independents have gone from his source of strength to his Achilles Heel, it's time to reflect on why. The conventional wisdom from the White House is those "pesky leftists" -- those bloggers and Vermont Governors and Senators who keep wanting real health reform, real financial reform, immigration reform not preceded by a year or two of raids that leave children without parents, and all the other changes we were supposed to believe in.

Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.

What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.

What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.

The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.

Leadership, Obama Style

Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.

Health care is a paradigm case. When the president went to speak to the Democrats last week on Capitol Hill, he exhorted them to pass the bill. According to reports, though, he didn't mention the two issues in the way of doing that, the efforts of Senators like Ben Nelson to use this as an opportunity to turn back the clock on abortion by 25 years, and the efforts of conservative and industry-owned Democrats to eliminate any competition for the insurance companies that pay their campaign bills. He simply ignored both controversies and exhorted.

Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.

We have seen the same pattern of pretty speeches followed by empty exhortations on issue after issue. The president has, on more than one occasion, gone to Wall Street or called in its titans (who have often just ignored him and failed to show up) to exhort them to be nice to the people they're foreclosing at record rates, yet he has done virtually nothing for those people. His key program for preventing foreclosures is helping 4 percent of those "lucky" enough to get into it, not the 75 percent he promised, and many of the others are having their homes auctioned out from right under them because of some provisions in the fine print. One in four homeowners is under water and one in six is in danger of foreclosure. Why we're giving money to banks instead of two-year loans -- using the model of student loans -- to homeowners to pay their mortgages (on which they don't have to pay interest or principal for two years, while requiring their banks to renegotiate their interest rates in return for saving the banks from "toxic assets") is something the average person doesn't understand. And frankly, I don't understand it, either. I thought I voted Democratic in the last election.

Same with the credit card companies. Great speech about the fine print. Then the rates tripled.

The president has exhorted the banks, who are getting zero-interest money, to give more of it to small businesses. But they have no incentives to do that. There are too many high-yield, reasonably low risk investments to make with zero-interest federal loans. I wouldn't mind a few billion to play around with right now myself, and I can't say I'd start with some guy who wants to start his own heating and air company, or an existing small business owner who is hanging on by his fingernails in tough economic times. I'd put my money in something like emerging markets, or maybe Canada. (Have you noticed how well Canadian equities are doing lately?) Or perhaps Chinese wind turbines. (Oh, we're investing there already with stimulus funds.)

The time for exhortation is over. FDR didn't exhort robber barons to stem the redistribution of wealth from working Americans to the upper 1 percent, and neither did his fifth cousin Teddy. Both men told the most powerful men in the United States that they weren't going to rip off the American people any more, and they backed up their words with actions. Teddy Roosevelt was clear that capital gains taxes should be high relative to income taxes because we should reward work, not "gambling in stocks." This President just doesn't have the stomach to make anyone do anything they don't want to do (except women to have unwanted babies because they can't afford an abortion or live in a red state and don't have an employer who offers insurance), and his advisors are enabling his most troubling character flaw, his conflict-avoidance.

Like most Americans I talk to, when I see the president on television, I now change the channel the same way I did with Bush. With Bush, I couldn't stand his speeches because I knew he meant what he said. I knew he was going to follow through with one ignorant, dangerous, or misguided policy after another. With Obama, I can't stand them because I realize he doesn't mean what he says -- or if he does, he just doesn't have the fire in his belly to follow through. He can't seem to muster the passion to fight for any of what he believes in, whatever that is. He'd make a great queen -- his ceremonial addresses are magnificent -- but he prefers to fly Air Force One at 60,000 feet and "stay above the fray."

It's the job of the president to be in the fray. It's his job to lead us out of it, not to run from it. It's his job to make the tough decisions and draw lines in the sand. But Obama really doesn't seem to want to get involved in the contentious decisions. They're so, you know, contentious. He wants us all to get along. Better to leave the fights to the Democrats in Congress since they're so good at them. He's like an amateur boxer who got a coupon for a half day of training with Angelo Dundee after being inspired by the tapes of Mohammed Ali. He got "float like a butterfly" in the morning but never made it to "sting like a bee."

Do you think Americans ought to have one choice of health insurance plans the insurance companies don't control, or don't you? I don't want to hear that it would sort of, kind of, maybe be your preference, all other things being equal. Do you think we ought to use health care as a Trojan Horse for right-wing abortion policies? Say something, for God's sake.

He doesn't need a chief of staff. He needs someone to shake him until he feels something strongly enough not just to talk about it but to act. He's increasingly appearing to the public, and particularly to swing voters, like Dukakis without the administrative skill. And although he is likely to squeak by with a personal victory in 2012 if the economy improves by then, he may well do so with a Republican Congress. But then I suppose he'll get the bipartisanship he always wanted.

No Vision, No Message

The second problem relates to the first. The president just doesn't want to enunciate a progressive vision of where this country should be heading in the 21st century, particularly a progressive vision of government and its relation to business. He doesn't want to ruffle what he believes to be the feathers of the American people, to offer them a coherent, emotionally resonant, values-driven message -- starting with an alternative to Ronald Reagan's message that government is the problem and not the solution -- and to see if they might actually follow him.

He doesn't want to talk about social issues, even though they predictably have gotten in the way of health care reform and will do the same on one issue after another. Abortion? You don't advance a progressive position by giving a center-right speech at Notre Dame that emphasizes cutting back on the number of abortions without mentioning that sex education and birth control might be useful means to that end, mumbling something about a conscience clause that suggests that pharmacists don't have to fill birth control prescriptions if it offends their sensibilities, and allowing states to use health care reform to set back the rights of women and couples to decide when to start their families based on somebody else's faith. If you believe that freedom includes the freedom to decide when you will or won't have a child, say it, say it with moral conviction, and follow it up with action. Perhaps something as simple as this: "I won't sign a health bill into law that forces women and couples to have a child they did not intend and are not ready to parent because of the dictates of someone else's faith or conscience." You know what? A message of that sort wins by 25 points nationally, and you can speak it in Southern and win with evangelical Christians in the deep south if you speak to them honestly in the language of faith. That shouldn't be hard for a president who is a religious Christian.

Gays? Virtually all Americans are for repealing don't ask/don't tell (except for conservatives who haven't yet come to terms with their own homosexuality -- but don't tell them that, or at least don't ask). This one's a no-brainer. Tell Congress you want a bill on your desk by January 1, and announce that you have serious questions about the constitutionality of the current policy and won't enforce it until your Justice Department has had time to study it. Don't keep firing gay Arabic interpreters. But that would require not just giving the pretty speech on how we're all equal in the eyes of God and we should all be equal in the eyes of the law (a phrase he might want to try sometime). It would require actually doing something that might anger a small percentage of the population on the right, and that's just too hard for this president to do. It's one thing to acknowledge and respect the positions of people who hold different points of view. It's another to capitulate to them.

Immigration? Joe Wilson yells, "You lie." So instead of acting like a man and going after Wilson on the spot (the man just attacked him in front of the entire nation in a joint session of Congress), he accepts his apology the next day, and a day later rewards Wilson for his incivility and bigotry by tightening the rules so that illegal immigrants can't even buy insurance themselves on the health care exchange the Democrats are creating sometime between 2013 and 2025 (depending on how many seats they lose in the meantime, and hence how long, if ever, it takes for the exchange to get set up).

Good policy? No. Not only is it inhumane -- can you imagine being really sick or in terrible pain but being too afraid even to go to a clinic because you might be deported? -- but it's a public health hazard for sick people not to get care and spread their illnesses, a drain on American taxpayers as illegal immigrants who finally have no choice but to find their way, when they're incredibly ill, to emergency rooms or public clinics, and a despicable policy toward their children, many of whom are American citizens, but who in either case shouldn't have to be sick, in pain, and without preventive care as their bodies and minds are developing, no matter where their parents come from.

Is it good politics? No. During the election I tested messages on just this issue, and a strong progressive message beat the most convincing anti-immigrant message we could throw at it by 10 points. Two weeks ago, I tested messages on just this issue as it applied to health care, and that margin had doubled.

If you just talk sensibly with Americans, they are sensible people. But ask them one-dimensional polling questions like, "Do you think illegal immigrants should get health care?" and you'll entirely miss the art of the possible.

Jobs? Watch for a $25 billion plan that makes good political theatre and that every economist I know says will move the unemployment rate from 10.0 percent to 9.95 percent. Not enough to save 30 seats in November. And not enough to save a generation of families from financial ruin and lower education, higher unemployment, and poorer health for the rest of their -- and their children's -- lives.

The problem with the president's strategic team is that they don't understand the difference between compromising on policy and compromising on core values. When it comes to policies, listen all you want to the Stones: "You can't always get what you want" (although it would be nice if the administration tried sometime). But on issues of principle -- like allowing regressive abortion amendments to be tacked onto a health care reform bill -- get some stones. Make your case to the American people, make it evocatively, and draw the line in the sand. That's how you earn people's respect. That's the only thing that will bring Independents back.

And that's where the problem of message comes in. This White House has no coherent message on anything. The message on health care reform changed even more frequently than the interest rates on credit cards last Spring, and turned a 70-30 winning issue into its current 30-50 status with the public. Last week on the Sunday news shows, I remember watching in disbelief as Larry Summers smugly told the 15 million Americans out of work that the recession was definitively over and that all economists agree. Then Christina Romer, another of the President's chief economic advisors, announced on the next show that the recession is definitely not over.

That's simply inexcusable. The least two members of the economic team can do before they fan out on the Sunday morning shows is to agree on whether we're in a recession, how it relates to joblessness, and how to talk about it sensitively without seeming out of touch. That's the job of the White House messaging team, which has been AWOL since at least the start of the health care battle last Spring.

It's the same problem we've seen with messaging the deficit. Are deficits good -- we're supposed to deficit spend our way out of a severe recession, right? -- or bad -- they're a drag on the economy and stealing from the next generation. So which are they? How about telling the American people, at the very least, when they're good and when they're bad, not flipping back and forth in the same sentence between deficit spending and deficit reduction.

To be honest, I don't know what the president believes on anything, and I'm not alone among American voters. He introduced his recent job summit by saying that even in these times, the role of government should be limited. Really? That was a nicely nuanced reinforcement of the ideology of limited, ineffective government promulgated by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it runs against all the available data and everything Democrats have stood for since FDR.

Abortion? Who knows. Gays? I suspect intellectually he believes in equal rights but deep down he thinks they're icky. Something is sure holding him back from doing the obvious. Immigrants? He probably has an opinion, but he's not going to waste political capital on them; he sold them out in 15 seconds on health care. Foreclosures? Nice speeches, and I'm sure it really concerns him when he hears the stories of families firsthand. But not enough to divert the cash from the lenders to the borrowers. And the problem is, the average American knows it. Job creation? Would be nice, and I presume he believes that people who want to work ought to be able to work. But when 700,000 people were losing their jobs a month in his first few months of office and over millions have lost their jobs on his watch (a process, of course, initiated by his predecessor, whose name, to my knowledge, he has not uttered since entering office), three letters should have come to mind: W - P - A. President Roosevelt had no legs to stand on, but he sure had spine.

The Politics of the Lowest Common Denominator

And capping off all of these aspects of the president's leadership style is his preference for the lowest common denominator. That means you don't really have to fight, you don't have to take anybody on, you don't take any risks. You just find what the public is so upset about that even the Republicans would stipulate to it if forced to (e.g., that excluding people from health care because they have "pre-existing conditions" is something we can't continue to tolerate) and build it into whatever plan the special interests can hammer out around it.

Unfortunately, what Democrats just can't seem to understand is that the politics of the lowest common denominator is always a losing politics. It sends a meta-message that you're weak -- nothing more, nothing less -- and that's the cross the Democrats have had to bear since they "lost China" 60 years ago. And in fact, it is weak.

Want health care reform? Let Congress work it out, and whatever comes out, call it a victory. It's telling that when the Senate triumphantly announced that it had the 60 votes for cloture on Friday, insurance stocks hit a 52-year peak.

Energy? Okay, if you don't really want to mess with the oil and coal industries, let the caps slip higher and higher and industry will cut pollution around the edges. It won't really solve the problem, but it's the golden mean between the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do, which is the essence of Obampromise. It also hamstrings you in Copenhagen, but oh well, they could use a little global warming there this time of year anyway. Have you noticed it's cold as hell over there?

Financial regulation? The president's all for the good stuff: regulating derivatives and other fancy financial products no one but the people making bundles off of them who crashed the economy (and now run it) understand. Tell bankers the days of wine and roses are over. But if we have to have half-reform so Goldman Sachs is willing to keep sending its best and brightest through the revolving door at Treasury, that's okay; the Dow is up. So jobs are bleak and the average American is enraged that Wall Street had a bumper year -- with record bonuses -- as they're losing their homes. But you know the old adage about a half a loaf.

That's in fact what the health care debate is over. We shouldn't have had to settle for half a loaf. If the president had simply placed appropriate blame on the health insurance industry for its pre-existing conditions, it's cutting off care for breast cancer victims in the middle of treatment, and its doubling our premiums and co-pays during the Bush years, he would have harnessed populist anger and pushed this bill through six months ago, and it would have looked like the change we were told to believe in. But if you cut backroom deals with every special interest who is part of the problem and offer the American people no coherent message while the other side is messaging straight out of the messaging memo written by Frank Luntz ("government takeover," "a bureaucrat between you and your doctor"), you can expect half a loaf. And the other half will be paid for by middle class taxpayers, as in the Senate bill, which includes provisions like taxing good middle class tax plans like PPOs, which will disappear as soon as insurance companies and big businesses have the excuse of the missing tax break. Remind me, when we've just had the largest transfer of wealth to the upper 1 percent of the country from working and middle class Americans in a century, why it would be such a terrible thing instead, as in the House bill, to ask people who make over a million dollars a year to pony up for the health care of their (and their friends') housekeepers, instead of taking away health care plans union workers traded for salary increases?

The president's biggest success has been on the international stage: He's not George W. Bush, and he's eloquent to boot. He's done a great deal with that eloquence to speak to Muslims around the world and to make clear to others in the international community that America is back -- mostly. But that international community is just starting to learn that his eloquence doesn't always have much behind it.

Am I being too hard on the president? He's certainly done many good things. But it would be hard to name a single thing President Obama has done domestically that any other Democrat wouldn't have done if he or she were president following George W. Bush (e.g., signing the children's health insurance bill that Congress is about to gut to pay for worse care for kids under the health insurance exchange, if it ever happens), and there's a lot he hasn't done that every other Democrat who ran for president would have done.

Obama, like so many Democrats in Congress, has fallen prey to the conventional Democratic strategic wisdom: that the way to win the center is to tack to the center.

But it doesn't work that way.

You want to win the center? Emanate strength. Emanate conviction. Lead like you know where you're going (and hopefully know what you're talking about).

People in the center will follow if you speak to their values, address their ambivalence (because by definition, on a wide range of issues, they're torn between the right and left), and act on what you believe. FDR did it. LBJ did it. Reagan did it. Even George W. Bush did it, although I wish he hadn't.

But you have to believe something.

I don't honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn't figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he's not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he's going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they're seeing right now is "liberalism," and they don't like what they see. I don't, either.

What's they're seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That's a recipe for going nowhere fast -- but getting there by November.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.