07/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why President Obama Should Welcome a Discussion of Social Issues, and Why He Needs to Lead One Now

President Obama has done his best to avoid discussions of social issues since the start of his campaign for the presidency. In so doing he has succeeded in staying on his central message: that what the American people need right now is not another politician exploiting cultural divides but someone who actually wants to solve the nation's problems. And those problems are enormous: an economy in shambles, a crumbling infrastructure, a national energy policy that was designed to protect the interests of oil companies instead of economic and national security interests of the country, a health care system whose costs are spiraling out of control while covering fewer people and fewer of their bills, and an education system that is failing our children and increasingly putting them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy.

It has been refreshing to hear someone advance the novel idea that the primary role of government is not to serve as a canvas for mud-wrestling over social issues but as a mechanism for solving the real problems of real people.

But as the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has demonstrated, even Mohammed Ali could not bob and weave his way out of the debate on social issues, and nor should the President.

He should welcome it. He is a man of tremendous eloquence who has the ear of the 60-plus percent of the public who deeply respect, like, and admire him and would listen carefully to his vision of a progressive America, including an America that is progressive on social issues.

And all of the available data suggest that Americans are ready to hear that vision.

Over the last couple of years -- on about 15 issues, from wedge issues such as abortion, immigration, and affirmative action, to problems such as health care, energy and climate, and national security -- I have listened in focus groups to dozens of swing voters (people who resonate with messages from both the right and the left, depending on who is speaking with them and how), watched over 15,000 voters respond online using dial-tests (in which they move their cursor one way or the other to indicate whether they like or don't like what they are hearing) like the ones seen on CNN at the bottom of the screen during presidential speeches and debates, and polled another ten to fifteen thousand voters in traditional telephone surveys to see how different ways of speaking to their values and concerns fare against well-branded conservative messages.

What my collaborators and I have found will strike many readers as surprising: On every issue we have studied, from abortion to immigration, a well-refined progressive narrative, designed to speak to the hearts and minds of the American people in their language, not the language of activists and advocates, can beat the strongest of conservative messages nationally by 15-20 points. Even in the Deep South, where I live, we can win by strong double digits with common sense, center-left messages on issues such as abortion.

There is no reason for progressives or Democrats to play defense on these issues. We should be playing offense, putting Republican ideologues on the ropes, where they are used to having Democrats.

Consider the president's address at Notre Dame, which came on the heels of a non-argument that morning between the pro-life leaders of both the DNC and RNC on "Meet the Press," which suggested, if inadvertently, that the two parties have come to a center-right consensus on the issue. The president's sole statement on abortion that afternoon unfortunately reinforced that impression: "So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Although the president won high marks for the speech, he did nothing to advance or articulate a progressive position on abortion. Nor did he caution those who believe they have the right to dictate others' actions based on their own particular religious beliefs that they are crossing a line that is antithetical to every principle on which our nation was founded. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders were very familiar with the argument that something should be the law because "the Bible says so." The Constitution represents one of the most strongly worded rejections of that argument ever written. It is difficult to take issue with the Taliban's attempt to impose Sharia law on Afghani or Pakistani women while failing to take issue with similar attempts in this country to impose particular interpretations of Christian theology on those who do not share those beliefs.

President Obama's words carried the implication, whether intended or not, that true virtue lies in carrying unintended fetuses to term. Although a genuinely progressive position is one that supports freedom -- whether the freedom to end an unintended pregnancy or the freedom to carry it to term -- most progressives, like most Americans, do not consider the Palins role models of reproductive ethics or responsibility. When the president spoke of reducing unintended pregnancies, he did not mention sex education and birth control, which are the surest way to prevent them. After years of hearing about the virtues of abstinence from his predecessor, the American people needed to hear from this president that leaving our teenagers uneducated or misinformed about sexuality is neither good public policy nor good ethics. And although it was unclear what the president had in mind by a "sensible conscience clause," the most likely meaning is that doctors and pharmacists should have the right to decide whether they want to prescribe or inform patients about birth control, contraception, or abortion.

Although I admire the president's ability to remind Americans that we can disagree with civility and respect (a message that is particularly poignant today, after the murder of a doctor at his own church Sunday morning by someone who disagreed with his position on abortion), Democrats should stop evading this issue and tell Americans where they stand on it. Not only does the public deserve to know what Democrats believe, but our silence can do nothing but shift the public rightward, as the only messages they have heard for a decade are right-wing messages.

The reality is that when Democrats clearly state their values on this issue, Americans prefer their message over a strong, well-crafted "pro-life" position by double digits. Consider the following statement, which the pollster Stan Greenberg and I tested in October with a representative national sample of 1000 likely voters:

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. That's why I'm both pro-choice and pro-personal responsibility. Politicians shouldn't intrude on a woman or couple's most personal and painful decisions, and no one has the right to use government to impose their religious beliefs on somebody else. But that doesn't mean people should engage in unprotected sex and use abortion as a form of birth control. The best way to reduce abortions is to reduce unwanted and teen pregnancies. That means making sure every adult has access to medically accurate information and birth control, and providing honest, age appropriate sex education to our kids.

This message beat an evocative, well-branded conservative message by 19 points with the general electorate and by 20 points with swing voters. This was the only message we tested that used the term "pro-choice" that strongly appealed to voters, but it was one of the most effective ways of speaking to voters, particularly in the political center, for several reasons. It paired choice with responsibility, rather than suggesting, as the right often does, that choice implies a casual attitude toward sex, contraception, and abortion. It did not disenfranchise men from this issue the way the language of "a woman's right to choose" normally does, referring instead to "a woman or couple's most personal and painful decisions," which in most cases is actually more accurate (because although the final decision lies with the woman, most women deciding whether to have an abortion talk to the man who impregnated them). It inoculated against the right's "slippery slope" argument that Democrats really believe in "abortion on demand." And it emphasized sex education, which strong majorities of even evangelical Christians want their children to get.

This message would not, however, be an effective message for many candidates from the South or other conservative states or districts where the language of "choice" has become strongly associated with the Pat Robertson linkage of abortion, feminism, lesbianism, and the demise of Western civilization, and where people are hearing from the pulpit every Sunday that abortion is the murder of the innocents. We tested another message, however, which also won nationally by 20 points and was a variant of a message that beat a strong conservative message in Georgia by a 2:1 margin:

I'm not pro life, I'm not pro choice, I'm pro common sense. None of us truly knows what's in the mind of God, and the government has no business telling a man and a woman when they should or shouldn't have kids based on somebody else's interpretation of Scripture. But we need to find the common ground on abortion, reflecting our shared moral beliefs, not the beliefs that divide us. That means doing everything we can to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions. And it means preventing abortions late in pregnancy, except when the mother's life or health is in danger, because abortion shouldn't be used as a form of birth control, and it shouldn't be used when a fetus is too far along. This should be a personal and moral issue, not a political one.

I suspect President Obama would be comfortable with either of these messages, because from what I know of his position on abortion and his religious faith, both messages map closely onto his personal values. The point is that the president does not need to choose between urging mutual respect and taking a strong stand. He can do both. And he needs to.

Why? Because it has been a long time since we have heard from Democrats what they stand for, particularly on social issues. On issue after issue, we know what Republicans and conservatives believe in. A culture of life. Family values. The right to life. Marriage between a man and a woman. The free market. Small government. Low taxes.

But on issue after issue the American people have no idea what Democrats stand for because they won't say it in clear, values-based language. They don't all have to all say the same thing, and they shouldn't, because they don't all believe the same thing or share exactly the same values. The Democratic Party is a big tent, and the music played in that tent should be variations on a theme, like the variations I described above on abortion. But the American people deserve to hear the music from that tent and not just the loud noise coming from the other side. They have, to coin a phrase, the right to choose.

So how can the White House avoid turning the appointment of Judge Sotomayor into a conservative race-fest and a chance for Republicans to re-brand Democrats in darkly veiled language as the party of dark-skinned "special interests" and baby-killers?

The president needs to acknowledge publicly that these are his fights, not his nominee's. He might do well, shortly before the hearings on her nomination begin, to deliver the kind of speech he is uniquely capable of delivering, rather than to leave it to his nominee to try to defend what are in fact his values: religious and personal freedom, tolerance, opportunity, pragmatism, government staying out of people's lives where it doesn't belong, and government intervening where unfettered markets sacrifice the public interest for the interests of the few, to name a few. Judge Sotomayor can hold her own -- she has done so through two Senate confirmations already -- but the broader fight is over the president's vision, not hers. He has the standing with the public and the capacity to communicate that should set the stage for all of the public debates that follow during his administration on cultural issues.

These issues are too important (and many too racially tinged) to leave to chance, to a particular nominee facing a staged political battle, and to someone who has not just gone through the rigors of a two-year presidential campaign. These are battles for which President Obama should pick his own battlefields rather than leave them to be fought in the court of public opinion around a particular statement by a particular nominee about the judgment of a wise Latina or the particular facts of the Ricci case (the New Haven firefighters case, in which test scores intended to determine who would be promoted were disregarded post facto when white firefighters earned the highest scores).

The way the Obama administration sets the tone on what Pat Buchanan branded (and, Democrats should remember, not to the political advantage of conservatives) the "culture wars" will set the stage for whether the nation moves forward or backward on a host of social issues about which Democratic candidates and elected officials have remained painfully silent for too long for fear that the public is not with them. In fact, whether the public is with them depends entirely on whether they continue to remain silent or whether they speak to the public in ways that address their values and sensibilities.

We can enter into an argument about whether white firefighters were treated fairly in New Haven. Or we can engage the American people on how we should rethink policies on equal opportunity crafted in the 1960s and 1970s for the 21st century so that we make sure everyone -- white, black, brown, male, female, straight, gay -- has a fair chance, without undoing the progress of the last century we have all seen with our own eyes.

We can enter into an argument about whether we should grant "amnesty" to "illegals." Or we can engage the American people on how to fix our broken immigration system so it serves the interests of American citizens: protecting our borders, protecting our workers, protecting our values (including values like extending compassion to those who are victims of torture or persecution and preserving rather than breaking up immigrant families), and growing our economy (by inviting people to become American citizens who have skills we need, and helping American businesses while being fair to people who are willing to take on seasonal, back-breaking labor by giving them a shot at the American Dream).

We have seen what happens when we are governed by a radical economic ideology that assumes that unregulated greed will lead to economic prosperity. The result has been economic collapse. We have seen what happens when we are governed by a radical ideology on national security that assumes that because we are the most powerful nation on earth, might makes right, and we need not listen to our allies or talk with our adversaries. The result is a world in which al Qaeda has metastasized and we now face very real and ever-expanding nuclear threats emanating from North Korea, Iran, and perhaps someday Pakistan.

The president has spoken to those issues. But we have also seen what happens when we are governed by radical social ideologies that assume that the government has the right to force the religious views of the few on the many, or that the right to bear arms extends to terrorists and members of drug cartels who want to buy assault weapons at American gun shows, or that it's "reverse discrimination" when a person of extraordinary talent such as Colin Powell, Sonia Sotomayor, or Barack Obama gets a chance to express that talent but it's as it should be when a person of meager talent like George W. Bush is the recipient of the "special rights" that got him into Yale and Harvard Business School.

The opportunity to name a justice to the Supreme Court has left the president no choice but to speak to these issues as well. But if anyone can speak in a non-divisive way about divisive social issues, it is current occupant of the Oval Office.

Speak, Mr. President.

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.