The Price of Wishful Thinking
Two recent columns deal with Obama's ability to communicate. Both are by people who were bewitched by Obama's 2008 performance and who have since learned the marketing of the candidate did not predict the performance of the president. One is on the left, the other on the center right.
Emory Professor of Psychology and political consultant Drew Westen's four page New York Times opinion piece What Happened to Obama? reads in places as if the terms Republican, conservative and tea party are categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Long passages also detail how other political leaders successfully manipulated the debate through the power of the stories they told. The length and intellectual machinations caused one wit to comment if the professor is familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance. When he finally gets to his point it is that he has no idea what Obama actually believes or why he is doing what he's done.
As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.
The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb - that "centrist" voters like "centrist" politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in "Dreams From My Father" appended a chapter at the end that wasn't there - the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.
Where to begin? It is amusing for Westen to discover what most of my friends on the political right have been saying about Obama's lack past accomplishment. The admission that some people read far too much into the politifables presented in Dreams also raises a smile. Westen's advice, on the other hand, is troublesome. He wants Obama to become even more confrontational toward the opposition. Indeed, he makes this astonishing statement:
When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others' misery has no agency and hence no culpability.
I think hospitality workers in Las Vegas, oil workers in the Gulf, the manufacturers of small aircraft and police officers in Cambridge Massachusetts might all disagree about those impersonal Obama villains. As for the idea that Obama has disappointed or even betrayed the ideals of the political left in not getting a tax increase, there is a distinct lack of evidence. The months' long debate over the debt ceiling offered Obama numerous chances to pivot to the center. He didn't stop talking about demanding a tax increase until several press conferences and a televised address to the nation failed to connect with voters. In Westen's world of credentialed experts, the idea that the dogs don't like the food is never the reason for a product's utter failure to sell.
At the height of Obama fever Peggy Noonan said and wrote some foolish things in praise of Obama's political grace and the redemptive power of electing a black man President. She obviously never heard of the old saw about how a misplaced assumption can make an ass out of you and me when she penned this.
Whoever is elected Tuesday, his freedom in office will be limited. Mr. Obama is out of money and Mr. McCain is out of army, so what might be assumed to be the worst impulses of each -- big spender, big scrapper -- will be circumscribed by reality.
The passage of both the stimulus bill and ObamaCare were unreal all right, but not in any way Peggy anticipated during her season of wishful thinking about Obama. While she seems to have amnesia about that period, her point today about Obama's problems being worse than a mere failure to communicate is spot on In The Power of Bad Ideas she looked at Obama's inability to move the polls in the budget debate and points out Democrat consultants are wrong to focus on the manipulative power of political speech making:
He [Reagan] thought speaking was a big part of leadership, but only part, and in his farewell address he went out of his way to say he never thought of himself as a great communicator. He thought he simply communicated great things-essentially, the vision of the Founders as applied to current circumstances.
Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong, so they explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches. They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith in the power of speaking.
But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not.
Despite the acknowledgment that he glossed over Obama's inexperience and indecisiveness in 2008, Westen remains as out of touch with reality today as Noonan was in 2008. There is no magic narrative that will make average voters accept bad ideas just because those ideas are in favor with a class of credentialed -- but not necessarily educated -- experts. At best all he and his ilk can do is pull a short term bait and switch. Westen forgets that in running for the presidency, Obama buried both his class warrior side and his deep ties to the academic left. The few times it came out during the campaign, the media either explained it all away or attempted to discredit the source. Bitter clingers? An unfortunate slip of the tongue. Bill Ayers? Just a guy whose kids attended the same school. Joe the plumber? Sic the media on him to find dirt to discredit him. The speeches that created the Obama phenomenon were not about income redistribution or punishing political enemies. They were the ones in which Obama talked about building a bipartisan and post racial America.
The only thing playing the class warfare card will accomplish in 2012 is to further remind voters how the description of candidate Obama in 2008 failed to predict the performance of President Obama. In an age of instant mass feedback not as described are three of the deadliest words around.
Positive and inclusive language combined with a very cool WASPish demeanor made independents and even center right Republican voters take a chance on Obama in 2008. That post partisan post-racial campaign persona disappeared almost as soon as the votes were counted: Only the perfectly creased pants remain. That and a pawn ticket to be redeemed on America's future in the sum of $46,753 per citizen and growing. It is that number which will focus the mind of a great many voter against another round of wishful thinking at the ballot box in 2012.