THE BLOG
11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

All the President's Values

I'm starting to gain new respect for President Bush. Wow, that's a scary thought.

Sure, he was an impulsive, narcissistic little man of at-best average intellect, who acted on his "gut" even when it was as empty as his head. Sure, he had a Manichean world-view and split the world into those who are "with us" or "against us." Sure, he pursued an economic philosophy (if you can call three or four words strung together at a time, usually with improper syntax, the rudiments of a philosophy) that led to the Great Recession and a trillion dollar deficit to support a massive redistribution of income from the middle class to the super-rich. Sure, he loved cowboys so much he bought a ranch as a prop for his first presidential campaign and confused world leadership with a John Wayne movie. And sure, when he listened to his psychopathic sidekick, Karl Rove, he did some pretty shady things -- which was a lot of the time.

OK, so W. had his flaws.

But even when he was lying through his teeth, lying through somebody else's teeth (like Colin Powell's at the United Nations), or bombing the wrong country, you knew where he stood. He had beliefs. He had principles. He had values.

Mind you, I didn't agree with any of those beliefs, principles, or values. But once Bush took off the "compassionate conservative" Halloween costume he wore for the 2000 election, he generally told us what he believed in and pursued it as vigorously as he asserted it.

For example, Bush thought gay people like his vice president's daughter were a threat to civilization (okay, maybe he had a point about Liz Cheney), so he tried to sell a Constitutional amendment to make them the official lepers of the United States (since both he and Jeb still needed Hispanics, and we already had a national flower).

He believed abortion was murder and that premarital sex was a sin (once he was no longer premarital, of course), so he used the big stick of both U.S. aid abroad and the federal government at home to prevent everyone he could from getting an abortion, a condom, or accurate information about birth control.

He thought everyone should be able to carry an AK-47 into church, so he opened an office of faith-based initiatives and let the ban on assault weapons sunset.

And he believed that monopolies constitute a free market and that profits are good no matter how you get them, so he gave taxpayer subsidies to oil companies while gas was at $4.00 a gallon and handed the national car keys to Wall Street traders along with a fifth of Jack Daniels and a race track.

Okay, so he wasn't among, say, our top 43 presidents.

But I wouldn't mind hearing about values from our current president. And more importantly, I wouldn't mind seeing him act on them, whatever they are.

No, compromise doesn't count as a value. And personally, I'm over "let me talk about personal responsibility in front of a black audience because everybody likes that." It was inspiring the first couple of times, but it's starting to reinforce white people's stereotypes that all black people need a talking-to about personal responsibility.

Speaking of personal responsibility, let's set aside for a moment the fact that Obama brought on the fellas who crashed the economy to fix it and hasn't fired or investigated anyone who caused the Great Recession or who continues to suck bonuses from the blood of our 401(k)s. That would be looking backward, and we're supposed to look forward. And forget about the wiretapping, the extraordinary renditions, all that civil liberties stuff. That would be looking forward, and we're supposed to be looking away. No one really knows why he's taken the positions he has on those issues because the reasons are all either classified or locked up in some jail cell in some country far away with duct tape over its mouth.

Let's just stick with one issue, health care. The president is right: we can all agree on about 80 percent. Insurance companies should have to reimburse doctors for the KY if they're going to allow prostate exams during men's yearly physicals. That's preventive care, and we're all for that. Nor should they be able to exclude people for coverage who have pre-existing conditions, cut people off on a pretext when they're in the middle of a costly illness, or impose annual or lifetime caps on medical expenses, especially when they're going to get 46 million new customers. And pharmaceutical companies should be able to set their own prices without negotiation if they agree not to oppose health care reform the way they did in 1994, continue giving millions to members of Congressional committees that deal with health care, and run $150 million in ads for the president's plan produced by the firms that ran his campaign so they have some cash to tide them over until 2012. Well, maybe we don't all agree on that last one.

But then there's the other 20 percent. Let's set aside for a moment how we're going to keep costs down if we don't ask anything much of the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, or the upper 1 percent of Americans, for whom tax increases somehow got off the table. (The answer: tax the health care benefits of middle class Americans and cut the waste from Medicare and hope you don't accidentally cut essential benefits to seniors.)

No one seems to notice that the president who believes social issues are so "90's," "retro," and "distracting" that he can just avoid them until the "real" issues have been settled (by which point he will likely have lost his super-majorities in one or both houses of Congress) has actually been steadily reinforcing the conservative position on every one of them.

Never mind that he threw gays under the bus on health care long ago (while his Justice Department likened them to practitioners of bestiality and his Defense Department continues to toss them out of the military), reinforcing the conservative position that gay relationships aren't real relationships, so gay couples don't deserve health insurance.

There was, of course, an alternative. The president could have used this as a "teachable moment" to move the political center, with a values statement as simple as, "When you sign up for health benefits, it's none of the government's, your employer's, or anyone else's damned business who you your husband, wife, or partner is." That's as much a libertarian message as a liberal one.

Obama's assumption of the conservative position on abortion seems to have gone equally unnoticed as he "reassured" Americans in his speech to the joint session of Congress that abortion wouldn't be covered, followed up by a categorical statement by his Secretary of Health and Human Services the following Sunday morning in case anyone missed it. If he's going to take the conservative position, he should be consistent and take it all the way: health insurance shouldn't cover birth control, either, because the Pope doesn't like it and nor do a lot of fundamentalist Christians. You certainly can't have taxpayer money going to block procreation. And perhaps we should mandate separate emergency rooms for men and women, at least on the Sabbath, because some women might be menstruating, and if government is going to enforce one group's religious preferences on the rest of us, it should enforce them all. (Well, maybe not the Book of Mormon, which had to change a little when Utah wanted to become a state. Anyway, multiple wives would be too expensive for the health insurance industry -- those are really big families.)

But Obama didn't need to take the position of the right to "avoid controversy." He might instead have stated a clear, values-based position -- "that government is not going to be in the business of deciding when or whether a woman or couple should or shouldn't start their family" -- and simply reiterated what is both the law and the mainstream view in this country, that in America, we don't force one person to live by another person's religious faith. That's a progressive message, but it's hardly "far left." If anything, it's "far middle."

Then there's the immigration attack on health care reform. Following Joe Wilson's rousing tea-party rendition of "Hail to the Chief" ("You lie!") in response to the president's joint-session "reassurance" that "illegals" with appendicitis will get a one-way bus-ticket to Mexico instead of (North) American health care, the president, who had just promised to "call out" those who used issues just like this one to try to obstruct health care reform, instead rewarded Wilson for his incivility. Following Wilson's outburst, the White House "toughened up" the president's proposal to prevent illegal immigrants from even buying their own insurance in the health exchange that will come online after the next presidential election -- in time for a Republican candidate to re-litigate the whole health care debate and derail it if he wins the election, claiming (and perhaps legitimately) a mandate for doing so.

President Obama could, of course, have responded differently, for example, by saying, "I have no intention of letting politicians who want to score political points hold the health care of our own citizens hostage to the immigration problem. We need common sense solutions to immigration that respect both our borders and our values, like increasing the number of border guards, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and requiring those who are here already to earn citizenship by obeying our laws, paying taxes, learning English, and paying for their health care like everybody else. But with all the partisan bickering, immigration reform isn't going to happen overnight, and Americans want leadership on health care reform, and they want it now." I happen to know he would have gotten the better of Wilson and his ilk by double digits with that response because we polled it last year against a tough anti-immigrant attack on health care.

What makes the president's actions and "reassurances" during the health care debate so disturbing is their common thread: If this president has values, he doesn't want to talk about them, except in vague generalities, and when push comes to shove, it's hard to find many that he isn't willing to give up to avoid a confrontation.

Does he believe gay people should be second-class citizens the same way black people were when he was born? Don't watch the rabbit, watch the hands. We've heard him lecture black audiences on the virtues of reading to their children -- something he is uniquely positioned to do as a black president, and an important message to convey -- but have we heard him lecture black clergy about their bigotry toward their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? Have we heard him remind them that white people made precisely the same arguments they have been making from the pulpit about gay unions 40 years ago about the "mixing of the races," based on the same biblical references?

On abortion and family planning, does he believe government should impose a vocal minority's religious beliefs on the majority in the most important decision people can make, about when to have a child? Or does he believe women and couples should decide for themselves, based on their own values and beliefs, when to start their families, whether to abort a rapist's baby, or whether they really want to bring a child into the world with a disease that will kill her before she ever turns 18? He and Kathleen Sebelius have "reassured" Americans that they need not fear the specter of government-funded abortions if health care reform passes. So what about health care plans that include it now? Watch the hand, not the rabbit.

And does the president really want to see the kind of comprehensive immigration reform he so eloquently spoke of during the campaign? Or does he prefer to continue stepping up Bush-era raids and promising Joe Wilson that illegal immigrants will die before they get health care in the U.S. of A., and that they will be denied care even if their husbands, wives, or children are American citizens (or if they are likely to infect American citizens with diseases for which they or their children are not immunized or treated)?

The reality is that there are competing value systems in "post-partisan" America, which are reflected broadly by the two parties, and both should be articulated clearly so voters can make educated choices.

The president and his team believe they can sidestep values and sell voters specific policies, with one "carve-out" after another for people on the other side who have strongly held value commitments and aren't afraid to voice them. But perhaps they should stop carving their values out of their policies and learn something from those people on the other side: If you offer the American people a compelling vision of the future, they just might follow you there. That's what leadership is all about.

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.