Thursday night I was on Charlie Rose talking with Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and Jonathan Chait, a senior editor with The New Republic.
Drew wrote a provocative article in the New York Times called What happened to Obama? It's a scathing critique of President Obama's leadership. Then, in a brilliant blog post, Jonathan Chait called Drew's argument a fantasy. Next, I responded to a slew of liberal critiques of President Obama in TIME Magazine and on the Global Public Square.
Here's a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation where I discuss the fantasy of liberals and why many need to grow up.
Charlie Rose: Drew, make the case that you made as to why you are disappointed with the leadership of President Obama and the significance you believe of narrative.
Drew Westen: I guess I’ll start by saying just from that clip that you just played, which I hadn’t heard before but I think it’s a prime example is that the President blamed the problem on Congress. He didn’t say - and he blamed the problem on the lack of quote/unquote "Congress" to - to be able to - to negotiate in good faith and to compromise.
The problem is actually isn’t the problem in Congress, it’s the problem that one side of Congress is actually not willing to negotiate and the other side was willing to negotiate away most of its core principles.
So that kind of rhetoric may help the President in his re-election efforts, looking like he is the grown-up who’s above the fray. But in fact what he’s just done is actually to take one more shot at his own party, which is trying to be incredibly conciliatory along with him and they’re getting pretty tired of what a lot of them feel is one capitulation after another on core principles.
Charlie Rose: And you want him to do what?
Drew Westen: I want him to act like a Democrat. No, I take - I take that back. I’d like to him to act like a Republican, which is to have some convictions and stick with it. Stick with them....
Starting from his first days of office he should essentially have said to the American people, “Look, I know you’re hurting; I know you’re scared; I know you’re angry.”
Remember where we were in 2009 when he gave his inaugural address. We were losing 750,000 jobs per month. The Dow had dropped from over 14,000 to 6,600.
Everyone was hurting; everyone was scared; the entire economy had come to a standstill and if he’d simply said to the American people "Look, I know you’re feeling this way; this was not a natural disaster; this was not an act of God; this was a disaster caused by men. It was caused by greedy men on Wall Street who made a bunch of decisions that affected your lives, that are taking away your jobs and are taking away your homes."
Charlie Rose: Jonathan, you have been critical of the President but you look at what Drew has just said and you say what?
Jonathan Chait: It’s a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to affect policies in Congress and to affect public opinion. There’s just not a lot of evidence that it has anything like the effect that he [Drew Westen] says. He brought up Franklin Roosevelt in his New York Times piece; Roosevelt being the counterexample to Obama as the person who told the story to the public and got them to believe it.
But the evidence actually shows that the public didn’t believe it. The public never bought the idea that using stimulus to put people to work is an appropriate use of government resources. Now, Roosevelt won anyway. He had a rising economy. He had the votes in Congress. But what that shows is that those are the things that actually affect political outcomes.
CHARLIE ROSE: All right. So Fareed comes along, he’s got to write a column. This is putty in his hands because he not only can quote the two of you, he can quote Bart Giamatti, not bad, and a constitutional lawyer named Alexander Bickel, who I studied in law school.
So you read both of these articles and you make what point?
Fareed Zakaria: The way I look at it, Jonathan is entirely right but he doesn’t go far enough for my purposes. As Jonathan says in a very brilliant blog post, this is the version of the American presidency you get from Aaron Sorkin in The American President.
The President gets up, and makes this incredibly moving speech which is, of course, deeply liberal. The entire country cheers and all of a sudden all the problems that he encounters are waved aside. You remember in the movie, of course, it was gun control and environmentalism that were the big problems.
The idea that if Barack Obama were to give a speech on gun control, suddenly he would be able to wave aside the Second Amendment and the settled convictions of a large percentage of Americans, we would recognize as nonsense.
The reality is that Obama is working within a very constrained political environment. The country is split about 50-50. We have this phenomenon of the Tea Party that has energized the Republican Party and a good bit of the country. Don’t forget, 25 percent of the American public identifies with the Tea Party. So within that context, look at what he’s done.
I’m puzzled by Drew Westen’s remarks. This is the guy who’s passed the largest stimulus program in American history. He’s passed universal health care, a Democratic aspiration since Harry Truman. He’s passed the largest overhaul and the expansion of regulations on the financial sector. He’s now been trying desperately to do more with regard to jobs.
That’s a pretty impressive package and I frankly put it up against - I don’t know, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and I’m a little hard pressed to see what the great liberal betrayal has been other than from some kind of fantasy version of liberalism where finally a Democratic president comes in and America becomes, I don’t know, Sweden.
A, that’s not what most Americans want. B, that’s certainly not where Barack Obama is, politically. So why are we so surprised that he’s ended up being a somewhat left-of-center pragmatist?
Drew Westen: Fareed, in all due respect, when you say that this is what the American people wanted, actually, the American people want the exact opposite. The American people have said since day one of this administration, "We want jobs." They said in a CNN poll that just came out, they said by 2-1, 'Deficits versus jobs, we care about jobs.'
That’s what they were worried about from the start. I can tell you because I’ve studied public opinion. I’ve watched it very closely. The strongest thing you can say to the average American to get their juices up from right-of-center to left-of-center is something that’s really close to their hearts, which is "I want to see the words 'Made in America' again. I want to see jobs back in this country." And that’s the agenda that the President could have and should have pushed and didn’t.
Jonathan Chait: Look, these are two inaccuracies that I saw in the original column. Number one, Obama did hold the line in the budget negotiations with the Republicans. He said if you don’t agree to increase revenue on wealthy Americans, I will not agree to entitlement cuts. And that’s precisely what happened and that’s the line he’s drawn in the subsequent negotiations. There’s no reason to think that he won’t do it. Now you can predict the future, but when you said that he gave in on this point, that’s simply not true.
Second of all, Americans do want jobs, but they don’t see that as being in conflict with the goal of cutting the deficit in the short run. Now, I think they’re wrong. Most economists think they’re wrong. But moving public opinion as the Roosevelt demonstration shows is just not very easy.
Fareed Zakaria: The American people, to be honest, want jobs and they want the budget deficit cut. They, by and large, don’t want many new taxes other than on the very rich. They don’t want Medicare cut; they want Social Security preserved; they don’t want the interest deduction on mortgages to be taken away; but they want many large cuts.
This is a conglomeration of incompatible desires. So you can’t sit there and parse this.
Charlie Rose: But do they, for example, want those so-called rich to pay their fair share?
Fareed Zakaria: Yes. But that doesn’t get you enough money, as you know, Charlie. I mean, the big money is in the big middle-class programs.
And to Drew’s point again, why is Obama worried about this? We have a budget deficit that is 10 percent of GDP. It’s the second-highest in the industrialized world. We have a gross national debt that will approach 100 percent in three or four years.
We’re not in the 1930s when government debt was minuscule in comparison. We can’t just say, "Let’s spend $5 trillion jump starting the economy and see where that gets us."
Look at what’s happening in Europe. The French are now having difficulty. The Italians are having difficulty. These are major economies. So I don’t think it is so outlandish and it does not show that Obama has been captured by bankers that he is properly concerned that there is some outer limit about how much you can spend and therefore a long-term deficit reduction plan is the right thing.
Again, to Jonathan, one of the points that’s important to make here is Obama has not agreed to savage cuts in the budget. He agreed to only $20 billion in 2012. All the cuts are back loaded which, frankly, means that who knows whether they’ll even happen.
In reality, the only cuts that are going to happen are $20 billion in 2012. That does not strike me as savage budget cutting right now.
Visit CharlieRose.com for the full video.
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