Why has Barack Obama been such a disappointment to many progressives? More importantly, why has he failed the country in a time of crisis?
It's largely because Obama does not understand how bullies operate, according to a prominent political psychologist. Obama has a poor grasp of "bully dynamics," says Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.
Westen presents numerous insights in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times. It's titled "What Happened to Obama?" and it should be required reading for the many Americans who voted for Obama and are watching him shrink before our eyes.
Westen points to two overriding failings of the Obama administration: (1) The president is a gifted orator who has failed to use those skills to communicate boldly with the American people; (2) The president is a constitutional scholar who has failed to stand up for fundamental matters of justice.
Under item No. 2, Obama has allowed himself to be bullied by Republican rivals who specialize in such tactics. Westen speaks eloquently on this point and notes the irony of our first black president being virtually clueless about the principles that drove Martin Luther King:
The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.That means holding bullies accountable. It means recognizing the importance of simple justice, especially for regular Americans who are suffering the most in our current economy. We have touched on this subject many times, decrying Obama's insistence on "looking forward, not backwards" at the apparent criminality of the Bush administration--and the raging inequality the Bush White House helped unleash on our society.
When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.
Yet, as Westen so succinctly puts it, Obama utterly fails to understand "bully dynamics"--as practiced by Republicans and the elites who benefit from their policies.
Sadly, the passage from Westen above might prove to be the most profound words ever written about Barack Obama. The president took office at a time when American society was saturated with bullies. Our economy and our justice system had been brought to the edge of collapse . . . by the actions of bullies. Here on our little blog about injustice, we report on the actions of bullies almost every day. They drive much of the dysfunction that permeates our courtrooms and our boardrooms.
This is not just a personal failing for Obama. As our president, his failure to fight for the "arc of the moral universe" puts all of us at risk. Writes Westen:
The arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.As for Obama's other major failing, it's hard to comprehend that he could do such a poor job of communicating with the public. By almost all accounts, Obama is an intelligent man and a speaker of considerable gifts. But you would never know it from his inability to connect with everyday Americans.
The stories our leaders tell us, Westen says, can have a profound impact on the public mindset. But Obama began stumbling on that front right out of the gate. Writes Westen:
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.
Westen even gives an example of what Obama could have said on Inauguration Day. It makes you wish Westen was a presidential speechwriter, not a psychologist. Would Obama have the guts to use him? Imagine the president engaging the nation in this way:
“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”
What did we get instead from Obama. Westen summarizes:
When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.
Is it within Barack Obama's makeup to "stare down" his enemies, to "tolerate their hatred"? Drew Westen suggests that the answer is no. And this comes from someone who seems to hold Obama in high regard, who once had high hopes for him.
The president, Westen hints, is a decent man who is too small for the position he holds--especially with the country teetering on the brink:
Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. . . . The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes. . . .