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Jim Sleeper

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Guess Who Obama Was Channeling In Kansas

Posted: 12/08/11 09:00 AM ET

You really can't get more egg on your face than Barack Obama's neoliberal Beltway apologists have after his big speech in Kansas. That's because a portion of the speech reads as if the president were channeling the pundits' nemesis, the political psychologist and consultant Drew Westen.

Last August 7 Westen's essay, "What Happened to Obama's Passion?," landed in The New York Times like "a rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland," wrote the blogger Andrew Sprung at the time in a post titled, none too gently, "A Lover of Fairy Tales Casts Obama as Villain in Chief."

Sprung's title encapsulated the reaction to Westen by keepers of the neoliberal Beltanschaunng, or Beltway worldview, such as Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait, who, as I showed at length right here, mocked what Chait called "Westen's lengthy, attention-grabbing... parody of liberal fantasizing."

Deriding appeals by Westen (and me, on July 29, in "The Republic After Obama") for presidential story-telling like Teddy Roosevelt's about the folly of de-regulating capitalism, they singled him out for imagining that, as Chait sneered, "every known impediment to the legislative process--special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions,.... [the] settled beliefs of public opinion--are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech."

"Americans pay hardly any attention to what presidents say, and what little they take in, they forget almost immediately," explained Chait, too young, perhaps, to recall the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. As recently as November 20, in "When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?" he was still fretting about "Drew Westen's attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay" and accusing Westen of making claims he'd never made.

The savants were especially merciless on Westen for suggesting some lines he thought Obama should have delivered in his inaugural address or during the debt-ceiling crisis or this fall.

Well! Guess who has now delivered the very speech that Westen proposed? Here are some of the lines that Westen suggested in his essay last summer. Following them are the ones Obama delivered this week -- in the very town where Teddy Roosevelt gave his "New Nationalism" speech in 1910.

Westen last summer on what Obama should say:

"Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn't work out. And it didn't work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results....."

Obama last week::

"Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt's time, there's been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. 'The market will take care of everything,' they tell us. If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy - our economy will grow stronger.... It's a simple theory - one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government.... Here's the problem: It doesn't work. It's never worked. It didn't work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It's not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s. And it didn't work when we tried it during the last decade."

Now that it's clear who was totally right about the value of presidential speech-making and who was totally wrong, it has suddenly become very, very important to those who were wrong, those who took to the airwaves and commentary sites so furiously last summer to denounce Westen, to pretend that he never existed. They need to make him a prophet without honor in his own country. That, after all, is precisely what high priests have always done to prophets.

So now, here is Chait quoting Obama's speech (though not the lines Westen suggested) -- and neglecting, for a change, to remind us how pointless and counterproductive such speech-making would be. Now, Chait finds the speech "an expression of a Rooseveltian belief in regulated capitalism, a progressive income tax, and shared prosperity rather than runaway inequality. But," he can't resist adding, "not to be too low-minded about it -- it also reads like a frame for a campaign to contrast himself with Mitt Romney."

Well, that makes it okay then! It's time to leave the prose of governing for the poetry of campaigning! The Beltway understands!

But maybe, in Obama's case, a shift to campaign poetry is really all it is, Those of us who've been urging it on him while he was still governing (or not) were deeply disgusted by his paralytic holding back as a truth-teller -- not because, as Chait and Zakaria insisted, we had a psychological need to undercut him but because we knew that Obama and his Beltway apologists were undercutting his own and the country's prospects.

Thanks to the "atomic bomb" of Drew Westen's essay, Obama got the message and has given an atomic bomb of a speech. No, Washington won't change because of it. But if he keeps delivering it and backing it up with a few of the right vetoes and real confrontations, voters will be far more likely not only to re-elect Obama but to give him Congress he can work with.


A previous version of this post linked to the wrong article by Jim Sleeper. The correct article, "The Republic After Obama," is now linked.