The president's magnificent speech last night in honor of Abraham Lincoln did exactly what he has been needing to do, and did it artfully and disarmingly: to begin re-branding government as something other than, as Reagan branded it, "the problem, not the solution." Behind a memorable branding campaign is almost always a memorable story, and the story the president told was precisely the one that Americans across the political spectrum have needed to hear, particularly those in the political center, who have developed a deep distrust of the only institution that can now save their jobs, health care, unemployment insurance, homes, and retirements. The story he told is of how government can sometimes err on the side of stepping in where it doesn't need to or in ways that are ultimately counterproductive, but that the pendulum has now swung so far in the other direction that we have forgotten that citizens joining together for the common good -- which, last I remember from the Declaration of Independence, is what democratic government is supposed to be -- is often the only force powerful enough to do what individuals cannot do for themselves. The speech masterfully blended together values shared by people across the political spectrum -- individual autonomy and responsibility, and collective effort and common bonds -- but that have often been touted as values of the right and left, respectively.
In a brief moment, the president also disarmingly dealt with what appeared to be the latest black eye on his administration, Senator Judd Gregg's sudden recognition that he doesn't really believe in things like regulation of commerce, stimulating an economy on the brink of collapse, or making sure everyone is counted in a census, and hence withdrew his nomination to serve as Secretary of Commerce. Toward the beginning of his speech, President Obama set the scene, with a twinkle in his eye that turned into a broad smile, of an Abraham Lincoln before he became Abraham Lincoln, wondering if he'd receive a phone call offering him the position of Secretary of Commerce.
Although another cabinet member biting the dust was probably not welcome news for the White House, this one was actually a Lincoln's Birthday present. President Obama has taken Lincoln as his role model and has tried to emulate his "team of rivals." However, as pointed out by my colleague Joel Weinberger, Lincoln didn't invite Robert E. Lee to give him advice on his war plans or ask Jefferson Davis to serve in his cabinet. If the President wanted a rival on his team for commerce, he might have chosen Nobel laureate and progressive economist Paul Krugman, who would be part of a team of rivals who are, at the very least, on the same team, wearing the same-colored uniform on the battlefield at Elkhart.
But Gregg was a problematic choice long before his views on the census or his non-vote on the stimulus became apparent, for reasons that reflect the way our minds and brains work. Much of our thought is unconscious and associative, not rational or linear, and shaping those associations -- as Reagan did with "government" -- is central to moving public opinion. For years, Democrats have led Republicans in the polls on most of the issues tracked by pollsters except two: national defense and commerce. This administration has an historic chance of changing that, as long-term advantages for Republicans of 30 or more points in the polls when respondents are asked who they trust more, Democrats or Republicans, on both protecting the country and working with business to create prosperity, dropped to single digits in 2008, and for good reason: when the Republicans finally held the reins of power for the last eight years, they destroyed their credibility on national security by waging wars unnecessarily and incompetently while simultaneously precipitating not only the worst year for business since the Great Depression but the greatest economic crisis this country has faced in a century. By choosing Republicans as Secretary of Defense and Commerce, the administration sent out an unintended meta-message to voters: you can trust us Democrats on a lot of things, but when it comes to defense and commerce, let's bring in the Republicans, because they really know something about keeping us safe and prosperous. The last thing the White House needs to do -- even in its unrequited spirit of bipartisanship -- is to reinforce Republicans' historic advantage on these issues at a time when voters are rightly beginning to rethink it.
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.