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Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted April 12, 2009 | 10:38 PM (EST)

Why the Democrats Are Losing Ground As Obama Is Gaining It


While the President is off being the leader of the free world and trying to restore prosperity at home, someone needs to manage the blind trust of the Democratic Party before its assets dwindle like shares of Citigroup. President Obama's approval ratings have continued to break records, and with good reason. In less than 3 months, he has already proven himself remarkably capable as a leader, in getting a stimulus package passed (while learning some hard lessons about splitting the difference in policy with the people who created the mess); steadfastly refusing to jettison health care, energy, and education reform from his budget in tough economic times; beginning to heal the deep wounds left by his predecessor in the U.S.'s relationship with the rest of the world through both his mastery of foreign affairs and his emotional intelligence as diplomat-in-chief; and even signaling his intention to take on comprehensive immigration reform. All of this has happened as Republicans have seemed increasingly impotent, ideologically inflexible, and oppositional, none of which endears them to anyone but the 30% who still think Bush was a great president (and apparently remain off their medication).

Yet at the same time, something else is happening under the radar: the fortunes of Democrats more generally are starting to wane. March was a good month for Barack Obama but a bad month for the Democratic Party. As the latest Rasmussen polls show, in March the percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats dropped by 2 percent--four times the rate of decline among Republicans (even as the Republicans were publicly flailing, producing numberless budgets, and unwittingly branding themselves as the party of old ideas and the party of "no"). More ominous, the margin of voters supporting a Democrat over a Republican in a generic ballot for Congress dropped to its lowest point since both the Iraq War and the economy had clearly gone south by 2006: one percent (40 vs. 39%).

So how could it be that President Obama's standing in the polls is holding steady or improving while Democrats' standing in the polls is falling? And does it matter, so long as he is able to get his agenda passed through a heavily Democratic House and Senate?

Let's start with the second question first. It does matter. The President's ability to stay on the path he has charted requires not only Democrats holding or increasing their majorities in 2010 but on their holding onto public support for sweeping change. It also requires moderate Democrats and those from conservative states and districts to feel comfortable voting for new spending, and likely a second stimulus package, knowing that they will be attacked in the next election with the familiar refrains of big-government tax-and-spend liberals (if not socialists).

And as for the first question, the paradoxical popularity of the new President while the fortunes of his party are waning, not only makes sense but is predictable from an understanding of the psychology of public opinion and "branding." Any marketing executive will tell you that a good product is certainly a big help for sales, particularly if the competition is producing lemons. That's the situation we have now in American politics, where the Democrats are producing solutions where Republicans manufactured problems, and where the Republicans are now trying to re-sell "pre-owned" ideological vehicles that have a bad habit of running into ditches.

But the best products fail without good branding. In politics, you don't win on ideas alone. Comprehensive energy reform was a no-brainer after OPEC began embargoing oil 35 years ago, but the percent of our energy we are importing from overseas has only skyrocketed since then, and Americans were buying Hummers until gas hit $4.00 a gallon. Health care reform made good sense in 1993, but last I looked, it hasn't happened. Successful branding requires two things: creating positive associations to your own brand, and differentiating it from competing brands. In politics, that means offering voters a clear, memorable, emotionally compelling narrative about your party's core principles, while presenting them with an equally clear, memorable, and evocative story about the other party that would not make anyone want to be associated with it. If there were ever a time Democrats could offer both stories, this is it.

But the failure of Democrats to brand themselves has been a perennial problem since the breakdown of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s, and it remains a major problem today, leaving Republicans the opportunity, once they get their ideological chops back, to start branding both parties again, as they have for the better part of thirty years. Democrats stand for spending our way out of a looming Depression--a sound policy when no one else has the money or chutzpa to spend or invest--but how does that differ from the fiscal irresponsibility with which Ronald Reagan branded the party of "tax and spend" 30 years ago? Democrats stand for shifting to clean, safe 21st century sources of energy rather than relying on the fossil fuels of the last two centuries, but then why is the Secretary of the Interior waxing poetic about expanded offshore drilling?

It's hard for people to hear your message when you aren't speaking. I suspect few Americans even know that Governor Tim Kaine is the new DNC chair, while his RNC counterpart, Michael Steele, is at least busy publicly humiliating himself. And the President has inadvertently chosen to keep his popularity to himself. Whereas Bill Clinton rebranded himself--and by extension, his party--as a "different kind of Democrat" than the voters had repeatedly rejected in national elections, President Obama has branded himself as above partisanship--as the Un-Democrat. That may be a laudable goal--the same laudable goal, in fact, that the Founders had in mind for the Presidency--until President Washington, who won the office by universal acclamation, chose to step down, at which point partisan politics erupted, and we have been largely a two-party nation ever since.

Perhaps President Obama will succeed where Adams and Jefferson could not, and America will become not only a post-racial society but a post-partisan one. But if he does not succeed in turning a broken economy around substantially by the summer of 2010 and reminding the American people on a regular basis (repetition is essential psychologically, neurologically, and empirically to branding) that he and his fellow Democrats are trying to pull the nation out of the ditch the Republicans left us in by the side of the road, his administration will gradually become associated in voters' minds with the economic crisis he inherited, and he will find himself working with a Congress far less friendly to progressive reforms in two years.

Under similar circumstances, FDR trumpeted the failures of the Republican leadership and ideology that created the Great Depression while still managing to unite a terrified nation around not only his own charismatic presence but around New Deal reforms--reforms he could never have enacted if he had not contrasted the failed ideology that had led the nation over the economic cliff with the radically different solutions he and his party were offering. Roosevelt's consistent branding of the Republicans as inflexible ideologues at the same time as he showed what progressive, pragmatic action and Democratic leadership could offer led to a political realignment that lasted 40 years.

That is not President Obama's style. He prefers to say that mistakes "were made" (but not by whom). He is comfortable attacking "greed" as long as he doesn't have to attribute it to anyone in particular. (He did fire one man in Detroit for the failings of the American auto industry, but he retained all the corrupt, greedy, and incompetent executives on Wall Street who made it impossible for anyone to get a loan to buy a car.)

The hope, of course, is that voters will see improvements in their lives and connect them to the party in power even if it doesn't make terribly strenuous efforts to take credit for those improvements. And perhaps that will translate to a shift in partisan affiliation that will sustain the President's agenda long enough for it to work or even beyond. But it is a risky strategy to refuse to brand the other side for the problems they created and to refuse to brand your own side for the solutions you offer and the principles that underlie those solutions. The President often speaks of principles, and in so doing has taken Democratic rhetoric to precisely where it needs to be, in the realm of values (as in his stirring lines about parents turning off the television set and reading to their kids when talking about education reform). But the average American associates those principles with Obama, not with the Democratic Party, because Democrats outside the Oval Office remain long on policies and short on clearly, colloquially stated principles.

It may well be that this President is temperamentally unwilling, unable, or uninterested in speaking unpleasant truths about people who did unpleasant things to a lot of people. And it may be that that's a good thing. Our politics have certainly been unpleasant for a long time, and he's trying to change that.

But the reality is that millions of Americans are out of work, and most hard working Americans have lost nearly half of their wealth, and many their homes, because of the way George W. Bush and the radical Republican ideologues who enabled him ran the government--and ran it into the ground. The reality is that we had a surplus when Bill Clinton left office, and the only reason President Obama inherited a $1.2 trillion deficit that now constrains him is that George W. Bush and the radical Republicans believed in handing out suitcases full of cash to their wealthy friends with no strings attached and no transparency. Personally, I think that bears saying, and I think it particularly bears saying every time those same Republicans preach fiscal discipline, heap scorn on government "bailouts" they both necessitated and engineered, or offer their quasi-religious answer of "the free market" to every problem the market has created or failed to solve, from the crisis in the housing industry and the lack of regulations on Wall Street that took down our economy (and the world economy along with it) to the fact that most working Americans are now afraid of changing jobs for fear of losing their health insurance. Republican politicians would certainly be a little less quick to step up to the microphone if they knew that every time they talked about fiscal discipline, a Democrat would be there to remind them that they were the ones who went on a 6-year spending spree with our children's money and then handed the better part of a trillion dollars out to Wall Street bankers and speculators, sacrificing the American taxpayer at the altar of their free-market extremism.

It may be that the President is not the right messenger for this message (although FDR had no trouble being both an inspirational and transformational leader while also leading his party, and the Republicans became the "Party of Lincoln" after the gangly leader from Illinois not only said a few choice things about those who wanted to hang onto their slaves but actually sent an army after them). And it could be that he is right to stand above the fray. It could also be that House and Senate Democrats need to be more forceful with the media about covering their statements, since their leadership has been less reluctant to talk in partisan tones.

But someone needs to be in the fray other than the GOP. The worst thing to be in politics is silent, because it allows the other side to shape public sentiment uncontested. It wouldn't hurt to have a Southern voice like Tim Kaine's behind a megaphone with a "D" written on it. But whether it's Kaine or someone else with credibility and charisma, somebody needs to start saying what Democrats and Republicans stand for other than Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Richard Shelby. That's a lesson we should have learned a long time ago.

In politics, there is nothing so deadly as silence.

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."