Script Doctor

Aug 7 '11

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:

bq. The average voter is far more worried about jobs than about the deficit…

bq. 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.

bq. 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.