Psychologist Drew Westen on what happened to Obama

Psychology professor Drew Westen (Emory University) has a fascinating opinion piece in today’s New York Times. Here’s a clip for those of you who can’t scale the pay wall.

…When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. 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.

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.

In contrast, 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…

I’d encourage you to read it to the end. It’s really an interesting article.

update: The following comment was just left here on the site by a fellow calling himself Jiminy Trickle. He raises an interesting point, and I thought that the rest of you might enjoy pondering it a bit.

It’s a persuasive article, until you consider actual history, and realize how deeply wrong it is.

It places the success of these movements on the actions of two individuals: FDR and MLK. In short, it buys into modern media notion of heroic superpowered individuals to fix things for all of us, rather than than the reality than articulate persons simply help articulate a mass movement.

MLK did not get attacked by dogs and drenched in fire hoses. FDR did not organize unprecedented labor movements. Of course, I don’t want to diminish their courage and sacrifice (obviously esp. MLK). But they spoke for movements that had a life of their own. They did not, did not act alone or even come close to creating the movements.

It is absurd to blame Obama. If you want Obama to “bend towards justice,” bend him. It’s clear that he’s bendable. But it’s plain stupid to look for some single savior to lead and create a movement. The movement comes first. The mouthpiece follows.

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14 Comments

  1. Jiminy Trickle
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    It’s a persuasive article, until you consider actual history, and realize how deeply wrong it is.

    It places the success of these movements on the actions of two individuals: FDR and MLK. In short, it buys into modern media notion of heroic superpowered individuals to fix things for all of us, rather than than the reality than articulate persons simply help articulate a mass movement.

    MLK did not get attacked by dogs and drenched in fire hoses. FDR did not organize unprecedented labor movements. Of course, I don’t want to diminish their courage and sacrifice (obviously esp. MLK). But they spoke for movements that had a life of their own. They did not, did not act alone or even cpme close to creating the movements.

    It is absurd to blame Obama. If you want Obama to “bend towards justice,” bend him. It’s clear that he’s bendable. But it’s plain stupid to look for some single savior to lead and create a movement. The movement comes first. The mouthpiece follows.

  2. Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Great comment, Mr. Trickle. I’m moving it up to the front page!

    I hope you’re prepared for the success of that comes with such a distinction.

  3. Edward
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Good point,Jimmy, but I’m not so sure that I believe there were more people interested in Civil Rights at the time of MLK than there are interested in having the rich pay more toward taxes today. As I seem to recall, over 80% indicate being in favor of it when polled. In other words, I do think there’s a popular movement here, in search of a leader. Obama, however, chose not to be that man.

  4. Bob
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Bill Maher posed a question the other night that I’ve been wondering about, almost since Obama took office. Did we make a mistake by not backing Hillary Clinton, instead of Obama? I expressed my disdain for Clinton as loudly as anyone, I knew that she would essentially follow her husbands lead and behave as a Republican. Obama has essentially behaved as a moderate Republican who is incapable of standing up to the real ones. Hillary at least was well seasoned to the dirty tricks and reality of dealing with Congress at the executive level. It’s unlikely that she wouldn’t have negotiated better deals and punched back a lot harder.

  5. Mr. X
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    All I can recall is what a failure Hillary was with her attempt to get single payer health care through. Granted, she could have learned a lot as a result of that experience, but I’m not confident that she could have moved that particular ball as far as Obama. If I had it all to do over again, I’d place my bet on Gore. And by that I mean that I’d go to Florida and demand a recount. (He already had my vote.) That’s where things went really screwy.

  6. Posted August 8, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I agree with the spirit of this column, but the details seem pretty murky. Jonathan Chait’s rebuttal is worth a read as well.

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/93323/drew-westens-nonsense

    I think I fall somewhere between the two.

  7. Glen S.
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I believe Westen’s piece is a spot-on analysis of how, and why, so many of us on the left believe the Obama Presidency has gone so terribly wrong.

    @ Jiminy/Edward — In some ways, I believe the enormous build-up of energy and enthusiasm leading up to President Obama’s election *was* the evidence of a popular movement in opposition to Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush-era policies of corporate dominance over public policy and a permanent war economy.

    Millions of people — many of whom had never been involved in national politics, including many young and first-time voters — knocked on doors, made phone calls, and made millions of relatively small financial contributions. Clearly, many of these people (including me) believed that there was actual *substance* behind all that rhetoric about “Hope” and “Change.” As a result, Obama ended up winning a share of the electoral vote that was, by modern standards, quite stunning — including winning almost all the key “battleground” states, and even previously Republican strongholds, like Indiana.

    I still believe that if President Obama had simply SEIZED the powerful mandate he was given — if he had championed a bold progressive agenda of identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, reforming Wall Street, breaking up the TBTF banks, ending corporate subsidies and closing tax loopholes, letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire, etc. … the popular movement his candidacy inspired would not only have continued, it would have grown — and could have served as a powerful source of support for Obama in fighting back against Republican attempts to maintain the status quo.

    Instead, the disconnect between his campaign rhetoric (and all of the popular energy and enthusiasm it inspired) — and his Presidency, so far — has been nothing short of stunning.

    Is it any wonder, then, that the popular progressive “movement” seems disillusioned and uninspired?

  8. Maria
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I like Jiminy’s point. Maybe I’ve been living in the Midwest too long, but believing it’s all about one person denies the reality of global forces. Look at what is going on around you right now. Obama has done many thingsright, but world forces are going slightly haywire. Yes, more people than ever voted, and were enthused for the Obama presidency, but involvment in the political process can’t end with a vote for a president every 4 years, because someone is disappointed with a budget negotiation deal with a crowd too ignorant to realize what they were doing.
    Economically, the plan was to increase money in the markets, hopefully to pay the outrageous debt that was acquired through the Bush years, but all that does is buy some time and make things worse in the long run, which is where we are globally.

  9. MC Trashpedal
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    As a nation, we are neither organized nor anywhere near concentrated enough to work in the direction of the sort of lofty goals our country’s had in the past. I figure we elected a charismatic Kennedy-esque leader, but without Kennedy’s ready-to-follow “we believe” contingent. There’s nervousness at the prospect of *any* growth above the lower borders of Maslo’s hierarchy of needs.

    NASA unravels. “We can’t use those dreams. We can’t eat them.”

    The problem is probably us.

    So what now?

  10. Jiminy Trickle
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Glen: Millions of people — many of whom had never been involved in national politics, including many young and first-time voters — knocked on doors, made phone calls, and made millions of relatively small financial contributions.

    But they did that for the idea of a man, not a man who represented specific ideas. Obama was the movement.

    Edward: I’m not interested so much in “interest” (“amusement’s” slightly brighter bedfellow) as I am in action. There is nothing even closely comparable today to the action of those in the civil rights movement that empowered MLK or the labor movement set loose FDR. The closest thing to action is the Tea Party and even that shrinks when you consider the dedication/sacrifice of the movements that backed FDR/MLK.

    Ask not how your President may give you a backbone, ask how you may give your President a backbone.

  11. Edward
    Posted August 9, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Oh, there will be a movement, and people will be in the streets. It’s just a matter of time. If you don’t believe me, just look to London.

    Speaking of which, now, I think, might be a nice time for our leaders to sit back and listen to a song.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiVvA9YQpiI

  12. Jiminy Trickle
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Edward: What’s happening in London is stunning (I hope Mark eventually has a post to discuss it and Cameron’s response which is tellingly akin to the “blame poor character and bring in the troops” response of uprisings against dictators in the middle east).

    But, despite popular notions of a progressive Europe, most of culturally monolithic Europe (and most of the world) is decades behind us in racial relations, integration and equality. We’re pretty piss poor at it, but as a nation of immigrants, we’re the pioneers. I don’t brazenly wave the flag often, but I love our Olympic entrances juxtaposed to the globe.

    Today’s London is 1960s America sans MLK. Looking to London is looking back, not forward. London is right to riot. We might be set to pop. I just don’t hear the sizzle of fuse to powderkeg anywhere I look.

    All I hope to do with these comments is help folks realize that Obama isn’t the one who will strike the match. If we want to see Rome burn, we have to bring ourselves to fuel the flame.

  13. Edward
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m torn on the events in England. From what I’ve read, a great deal of it was initiated by a gang element tied to the young man who was killed by police. And it’s hard for me to get behind any kind of uprising where innocent people are being forced to jump from burning buildings. I do, however, think that it goes beyond that. I think that, to a great extent, it has to do with a younger generation coming to the realization that they won’t have it nearly as well as their parents. Those people are looking for ways to express themselves, and these riots gave them an opportunity.

  14. Glen S.
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    The New York Times
    Friday, September 16, 2011 — 6:31 PM EDT

    Obama’s Support Is Slipping, Poll Finds, but His Jobs Plan Is Well Received

    President Obama’s support is eroding among elements of his base and a yearlong effort to recapture the political center has failed to attract independent voters, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

    The president’s effort to seize the initiative on the economy was well received by the public. But despite Mr. Obama’s campaign to sell the plan to Congress and voters, nearly half of people said they feared the economy was heading for a double-dip recession, and nearly three-quarters of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

    Republicans appear more energized than Democrats at the outset of the 2012 presidential campaign, but have not coalesced around a candidate. Even as the party’s nominating contest seems to be narrowing to a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a majority of their respective supporters say they have reservations. Half of Republicans who plan to vote in the primary say they would like more choices.

    http://www.nytimes.com/?emc=na

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