Script Doctor

Drew Westen’s indictment of Obama is right on several secondary points about public opinion, but fundamentally wrong in its portrayal of presidential power within American politics.  Even though Westen nods to political science research toward the end—alluding to Larry Bartels’ research on how the opinions of the wealthy affect the voting behavior of Senators—his overall argument is poorly supported by the available evidence.

Here are some statements where I think Westen is correct, or at least has a reasonable argument.  I will embed my own links to supporting evidence within his statements:

The average voter is far more worried about jobs than about the deficit…
But if you give them the choice between cutting the deficit and putting Americans back to work, it isn’t even close

It’s closer than Westen suggests, I think—see the link—but certainly there is no large majority in favor of cutting the deficit when it is framed in this fashion.

When it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are united across the political spectrum…

That’s also probably too strong.  See this Gallup poll, for example.  It shows pretty clear partisan divisions.  But, that said, there is evidence that raising taxes on the wealthy is a popular way to cut the deficit.

Even if these points are defensible, they are put in service of an overarching argument that is less defensible.  It is not that Westen—like many others—exaggerates the power of the president, although he does.  It is not that Westen downplays the role that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have had in shaping policies that Westen feels are failures, although he does.  It is not that Westen ignores the kinds of executive power that Obama could have used more aggressively—such as executive orders—although Westen does that too.

It is that Westen’s version of presidential power is essentially rhetorical.  He frames Obama’s alleged failures as, at root, the failure to provide “a story the American people were waiting to hear.”  Of course, as Andrew Sprung notes, Obama actually did tell part of that story.  But this point is more crucial: there is precious little evidence that presidents accomplish much by rhetoric—least of all large shifts in public opinion.  In fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens?  It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.

We can learn little about Barack Obama’s presidency from 3,000 words about speeches never given and the alleged character flaws implied therefore.  Presidents are embedded in a political system that is full of other actors who themselves have agency, who shape outcomes, and who the president cannot control, least of all by telling stories.


24 Responses to Script Doctor

  1. GeraldY August 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    That last sentence is worded rather strongly. It’s not as if you can prove your negative hypothesis either. Do you really want to argue that rhetoric plays no role in presidential leadership?

    • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 9:29 am #

      GeraldY: Did I say that rhetoric plays “no role” in presidential leadership. No. I was much more careful.

      • GeraldY August 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

        OK, what role do you think that rhetoric can play in presidential leadership? You have ruled out public opinion and public policy (in your FDR post). What’s left?

        • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

          “My” FDR post was in fact the perspective of a different person, Eric Schickler.

          • GeraldY August 8, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

            Oops, sorry about that. Google Reader only indented the first paragraph of Schickler’s comment and it looked like the rest were your words.

  2. Nick Beauchamp August 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    “In fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens? It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.”

    That link leads (eventually) to Frances Lee’s book “Beyond Ideology”. But Tables 4.6 and 4.7 show that presidential position-taking causes both parties to cohere, and in fact, “the effect of presidential leadership is consistently larger for presidential party cohesion than for opposition party cohesion” (94). So while stratifying the parties can backfire when the president is in the minority, Lee’s results suggest that presidential position-taking might well boost his success when his party is in the majority, as it was in 2009. On the other hand, if your overriding preference is to get some members of the opposition party to vote with you (either due to the filibuster, or because you have an ideological proclivity for bipartisanship), it might behoove you to avoid position-taking, or even borrow some positions from the opposition.

    • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 9:34 am #

      Nick: Sure, but if I were Westen, I would not want to base a theory of politics on the relatively rare institutional configuration that finds one party in control of the presidency, the House, and 60 votes in the Senate.

      • Frank Maraschino August 12, 2011 at 1:11 am #

        But that’s precisely the position President Obama was in upon taking office, a point which Westen has belabored to little avail.

  3. auntesther August 8, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    “in fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens? It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.”

    Thats because you have an impoverished, (“guess what often happens…”) theory of politics.? Remember Weber’s Vocation essays? As GeraldY suggests above, Western’s “rhetoric” is central to political animals agenda setting and taking fights to detractors.
    Thus, Obama is not the leader nor fighter he and the Dems sold him as. He’s performed as a neoliberal inside-man for the corporate state. That’s all.

  4. Robert Noble August 8, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    You give the impression that Western is primarily focused on the current issue at hand, and that seems a little unfair to me. I think his point is that the message from the President over the duration of his term, starting with his inaugural, matters. Obama has struggled since he was elected to really express his vision for the country. I think that that is what Western is speaking to. It is likely that a firmer tone from the President in the debt ceiling debate would have been counterproductive, although its not as though he got a great deal in exchange for his lack of position, but that hardly means that Obama wouldn’t have been more successful so far if he had told the sort of “story” that Western is looking for.

    A previous post pointed to the fact that Obama’s inaugural was much more like the speeches given by Republican presidents with much different electoral bases than Obama, and I think that this is an important point. Obama has struggled from the start of his term to speak to the issues that his supporters were often thinking about when they voted for him, and this failure has made it easier for the opposition party to frame the debate their own way. Counterfactuals are always problematic, but I don’t see any reason to believe that Obama’s refusal to take firm stances on legislation didn’t contribute to what many in his base see as a pretty lack-luster set of accomplishments.

    • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      Robert: I appreciate your point. But it really depends on what you mean by “base.” Most Democrats, and especially liberal Democrats, approve of the job Obama is doing as president.

  5. paul gronke August 8, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    GeraldY, I agree. John, your focus is as narrow as the writers you critique.

    What the studies you refer to show is this: there is little evidence of a statistically significant bump in the presidential approval rating time series as a result of single speeches.

    How does that translate into the claim that “there is precious little evidence that presidents accomplish much by rhetoric”? Do we really evaluate presidential leadership and accomplishment using such a narrow lens?

    • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 9:37 am #

      Paul: I would be very interested in any evidence that presidential rhetoric affects outcomes beyond public approval, controlling for other factors.

      • Dem August 8, 2011 at 10:14 am #


        You might look at some of the mass media and public opinion literature looking at the Reagan presidency. I remember (as an undergraduate) coming across a bunch of work that made interesting arguments on how Reagan used popular appeal to pressure Tip O’Neill’s congress into giving him what he wanted.

        • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 10:42 am #

          George Edwards’s research suggests that Reagan was not quite the “Great Communicator” that he is thought to be. See also Brendan Nyhan:

          • Dem August 8, 2011 at 11:06 am #

            I don’t remember Edwards, but will look at it. That Nyhan post isn’t really on my point though — not really worried about presidential approval per se, I’m actually worried about policy outcomes. Can the president get on TV and move Congress? Per Eric L.’s link below to Canes-Wrone: perhaps?

            I’m not saying the president is likely to accomplish huge shifts in public opinion. I agree — he’s not.

            But he can (a) inspire mass actions that change elites’ *perceptions* of public opinion (and their perceptions of their own risks) and (b) use public communication and rhetoric to set the agenda. That much at least seems pretty straightforward.

      • Eric L. August 8, 2011 at 10:44 am #

        Canes-Wrone is relevant here.

        See also her book.

      • andrew August 9, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

        This is a tangential point, but I do think it’s interesting how effective Congressional Republicans have been in making policy despite not having a majority in both houses and not having high approval ratings.

        A lot of this comes down to structural reasons, of course, but I find it hard to believe that rhetoric does not also play a role. Structural factors can’t entirely explain – to me, at least – how accepting many people have been of the relatively new 60-vote requirement for all major legislation in the Senate, or the unprecedented willingness to risk default right up to the end – which is a real change from an earlier willingness to bargain in a “normal politics” style on the debt ceiling.

  6. Don Williams August 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    1) Obama is not just the President of the United States — he is also the leader of the Democratic Party. In the latter role, he has been a massive failure. That is Reality.

    2) This Great Recession is due to a massive regulatory FAILURE that occurred on the watch of a Republican President and Congress ruled by Republicans from 1994 to 2007.
    The Republicans should have been in the wilderness for 20 years –just as they were because of the Great Depression. Instead, they made a massive comeback within two years.

    3) Why? The Republicans created the Tea Party with a massive and deceitful 24/7 propaganda campaign aided by allies like Fox News. In CONTRAST, the White House and Democrats were totally silent for the first nine months of the Obama Administration. How is that a winning political strategy?

    Even if Obama didn’t want to use the Presidential soapbox he should have had Joe Biden beating the crap out of the Republicans and laying out the alternative Democratic program.

    4) Pace John Sides at 9:36 am, Democrats didn’t lose on such a massive scale in the 2010 election because “Most Democrats, and especially liberal Democrats, approve of the job Obama is doing as president.”.

    They lost because Democratic voters could no longer determine who were the biggest prostitutes for Wall Street — the Democratic Caucus or the Republican Caucus.

    5) Of course, if you are planning to stab your base in the back it probably makes sense to not “energize them”. And if you don’t yet know what specific sellout your donors are going to dictate, it is kinda hard to advocate for anything.

    • BugMeNot August 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

      1) No, that is your opinion. *This* democrat thinks Obama did a stunningly good job considering the blatant and unprecedented obstructionism of the Senate republicans and blue dogs.

      2) True.

      3) First half: true. Second half: flat-out false. White House officials, including Obama himself, were out all the time, but the media refused to ever report it.

      4) You could not possibly be more wrong. It happened because of independents and so-called “swing voters” who voted in huge numbers in 2008 and all stayed home in 2010, which is the kind of drop-off you always see during the mid-terms. The actual democratic base came out in their usual high numbers, but weren’t enough to swing the election themselves.

      5) Empty partisan rhetoric. You really have no idea what you’re going on about.

      • beowulf August 10, 2011 at 12:11 am #

        Empty partisan rhetoric? Really? He just called both the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Caucus “prostitutes”. If you had said “empty nihilistic rhetoric” that would have at least had some grounding in reality.

  7. Jeff Sherman August 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Westen’s point is that framing the issues matters and that Obama has been unwilling to frame them in stark or compelling terms. The data on the importance of framing are abundantly clear. Westen’s point wasn’t about the effects of a single specific speech on presidential approval ratings or on presidential legislative power. I find this essay to be a weak rebuttal and very much beside the point.

    • John Sides August 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

      Jeff: “The data” on framing are not “abundantly clear.” In particular, it is not clear whether (a) framing in general “works” to affect opinion (I can think of evidence that does and does not find framing effects) and (b) presidents can successfully frame issues in ways that move public opinion. If you have a citation that proves (b), I welcome it.

  8. Kjoe August 8, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Someone said it seems like it is all about Obama getting himself re elected. If so, I don’t think that is all bad–beating him is all that matters to most of his opposition. If he can still be there to avoid the senate confirming the next three supreme court justices named by Rick perry or whoever, that is a big item in itself. My friends are losing patience with my idea that he is playing this like a miles Davis trumpet solo…the arc of it might turn out better than clinton’s second term. The vinyl is starting to sound a little scratchy, though.