Drew Westen on The Psychology of Obama's Failure

By Chris Mooney | August 8, 2011 6:17 am

President Obama is, unfortunately, shaping up to be yet another liberal leader who suffers from Enlightenment syndrome–the idea that if you just offer enough facts and reason, everyone will come to see things your way and you’ll solve problems. It doesn’t work this way–and psychologist Drew Westen, in The New York Times yesterday, explains why.

Elected at a critical time, Obama didn’t tell a compelling story about how he was going to rescue the country, Westen explains. Nor did he realize what he was up against, and how to face it:

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….

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 — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

You should read Westen’s full assessment–the author of The Political Brain is, unfortunately, harshly accurate. Perhaps, heeding the stunning chorus of critics right now, Obama will finally recognize that he has to stop being indecisive, stop trying to compromise, and lead.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (18)

  1. Why do everyone think he didn’t get much of what he wanted? Sure, he would have liked some tax increases thrown in, but, during his campaign, he initially stated he wanted to cut Medicare and Social Security, and focus on deficits, only to get clobbered by Clinton. He then changed his tune somewhat. While I don’t think this deal is ideal by his lights (and, by all accounts, the administration really, for inexplicable reasons, didn’t think S&P would downgrade the bond rating), I’m not sure he sees this as a failure politically–and if S&P hadn’t downgraded, it would have positioned him well for the election (of course, lower unemployment would be better).

    Westen assumes Obama is a struggling liberal/progressive. He was never a liberal, and was always a Rockefeller Republican (he chose Joe Lieberman as his mentor when he entered the Senate). He didn’t have to keep Geithner on at Treasury. The execution of HAMP was a completely self-inflicted wound (didn’t need Senate approval). The proposed tax increases on the wealthy are gone, other than a miniscule increase in capital gains as part of ACA (and he jettisoned the public option, which he ran on during the campaign). There have been no fraud investigations of the housing crisis (never mind convictions). He had to be dragged screaming and kicking regarding DADT (which is still in force, mind you; he apparently is ‘evolving’). Did he have to morally equate environmentalists with global warming denialists days before Deepwater Horizon?

    I think a lot of well-meaning people are simply looking for a liberal/progressive Obama that never existed. Given he needs $1 billion to win re-election, I wouldn’t count on that imaginary Obama showing up any time soon.

  2. Tony

    It’s always struck me as odd that so many science bloggers are so relentlessly empirical when it comes to climate science, evolution, and so on, but then so naive when it comes to politics, and seemingly ignorant of the main thrust of political science.

    The actual evidence shows that when a president takes a position on an issue that is open for debate, he polarizes that issue. See

    Westen reminds me a lot of George Lakoff, another guy who was selling liberals the fairy tale that you can chalk up policy wins with the magic power of rhetoric.

    See also the crew at the Monkey Cage (e.g. http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2011/08/07/a-response-to-westen-obama-neither-two-sided-nor-mysterious/). These guys are actual political scientists.

    Sorry to seem so harsh, especially since I loved your posts on conservative white males and climate denial. But I’m pretty sure that if Obama had ramped up the bully pulpit, it would have been drowned by the opposition on Fox News, talk radio, and a panoply of “concerned” pundits in the mainstream media. I’m not saying Obama hasn’t done anything wrong, but if you think they’re bad now, just imagine what they’d be like if Obama gave them an actual target.

  3. TTT

    Apparently it is lost on Weston that, in his own time, Martin Luther King Jr. was often depicted as a weak appeasing sellout to the cause.

    This and other inconvenient truths are well laid-out in a recent post on xpostfactoid. The particular blow-by-blow lineup of Obama actually saying every single thing Weston claims he didn’t say is pretty damning.

    Take away the teabaggers’ economic suicide-bomber plot and the Senate filibuster with its 41 tyrants, mostly from relatively uninhabited states, and you’d have the liberal results you wanted. Many die-hard liberals either get sick of seeing these truths and try to focus on something else, or cannot accept that these problems are systemic and permanent and thus could have–MUST HAVE BEEN!–avoidable if only Obama had used a little more magic pixie dust.

  4. Somite

    It is pretty obvious that progressive goals will not be reached as long as a filibustering few remain in congress regardless of who is in office. Rather than rubber banding between democrats and the GOP people need to vote for the most progressive candidates at primaries and then vote democrat. Anything else will maintain the status quo.

  5. Incredulous

    #3 Somite:

    “Rather than rubber banding between democrats and the GOP people need to vote for the most progressive candidates at primaries and then vote democrat. Anything else will maintain the status quo.”

    The unfortunate part is that even if we elect other members, they are locked out of the process because the party leaderships controls the selection of key committees and ties support to following the “party line”. If we want any legislation other than what the two party leaderships select, we are out of luck regardless of how we vote.

  6. Fred

    I think what Democrats really wanted wanted in Obama was a progressive version of George W. Bush.

    The problem is that Obama wears a media halo. For the first two plus years of his presedency, Obama had a virtual free ride from the loving liberal press.

    Now, finally after years of giving him the benefit of the doubt, the liberal press and liberal academics are starting to finally realize that he’s not an agressive progressive, but a mild conservative instead.

  7. SLP

    From my perspective Obama is as liberal as a person can possibly be. (I fervently hope so in any case.) So if Mr. Westen is correct why the conundrum and why doesn’t he lead?

    One word: Election.

    What conundrum! He believes he has the answers that no one else has. If he could he’d chisel them in stone and bring them down from the Mountain Top. And he knows – really deep down inside knows – if he actually puts his beliefs on display for the American people to choose they would -correctly – choose to throw him out on the street, pure and simple. So to get his agenda through he has to stay in power.

    Facts and reason? Really? None of Obama’s ‘facts’ and ‘reason’ stand up to any type of rational scrutiny. That’s why he’s perceived to be a complete failure by both sides. People want to achieve as much as they can on their own. But he knows better, of course. I mean here are his ‘achievements’ to date:
    – Increased Bush’s last budget deficit by a factor of 10. Each year!
    – Wrecked the economy.
    – Done what no other president has ever managed to achieve: downgrade the credit rating of the United States of America.
    – Pushed through a health care program that have more exemptions than Carter’s got little pills.
    – And the companies that remain in the plan? HA! The per person fine is just a small fraction of what it costs them to insure an employee. What do you think they’re going to do? And who can blame them?
    – Here are your ‘facts’ and ‘reason’. The fine was deliberately set to entice companies to drop their insurance coverage. Then the companies can be demonized all the while more and more of your life and mine falls under the control of the government. Does anyone honestly believe that was a mistake or unintended consequence?

    Is this what you really want Mr. Weston and others?
    – Unemployed and underemployed between 16 and 20 percent? And being told this is the new normal for employment?
    – Black Americans with unemployment around 35 percent or higher?
    – The fact it’s safer for a black man between 18 and 50 to be in prison than on the street?
    – The belief that if people took risks and worked hard they would have a future they could pass on to their children gone for a generation or more?
    – A communist government lecturing us on how to run an economy?
    – Higher interest rates?
    – More expensive food, clothing and medical care?

    This is your dream Mr. Weston? This is progress? This is your ‘facts’ and ‘reason’ in action? Please. And if the American people say enough are you going to stop? Maybe you should ask the Syrian People what happens when a government thinks it knows best and does not listen to its people.

    One of my favorite programs was and still is Star Trek. Great stories well told; give you an hour where you could leave the real world behind. But ultimately I had to return to the real world. The Star Trek Utopia was fiction.

    And so is the ‘Enlightened’ liberal belief of today. That, and only that, Mr. Westen is why Obama is failing.

  8. Chris Mooney

    I’m not sure, but I think # 7 just claimed that Obama wrecked the economy. I seem to recall it crashing before he was elected.

  9. TTT

    And the teabaggers caused the downgrade. S&P said so.

  10. Incredulous

    The article quotes:

    “THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue”

    Once elected to office, he is not the President of the Democrats, he is President of the entire country. He represents *ALL* of us and not just one party’s special interests.

    I don’t really consider him as having failed. I actually think he has been doing a pretty good job considering the constraints he is under. The only thing questionable I can think of is his authorization of involvement in Libya which he was really under obligation to support through NATO.

    United States politics is odd in that the President gets all the blame and glory (depending) when the real decisions are made by the legislature. The President’s office does not make up the banking regulations. The President does not make up the budget. He can beg, demand or however he wants to request funds in the budget for whatever reason he desires but it is the Congress who holds the purse strings. He just doesn’t have that much discretion.

  11. SLP

    Chris your right and I did say that. And your right the economy was in a downturn before Obama took office. And to paraphrase what someone else said about 2000 – 2008 ‘Bush was spending like a drunken democrat’ so I can’t really say your wrong there.

    But since you had no other comments about the post…Your actions (or lack thereof) speak so loudly I can’t hear what your saying.

  12. Brian Too


    Yeah, none of that existed prior to Obama.

    You’re projecting, big time.

  13. Chris Mooney

    I would actually praise SLP. A lot of people will not back down on a single thing, even if they’re unequivocally wrong. He just admitted an error, which is admirable.

  14. Tyler

    I would agree that SLP deserves praise for admitting an error, and I respect that. But everything else about his or her post typifies the sort of lack of simple, “sound-bite” thinking that has become endemic in American politics.

    For example, SLP states that Obama has increased Bush’s deficit by 10-fold each year. But that figure is utterly fiction and demonstrably false, as this economic data from the New York Times indicates: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24sun4.html

    Further, SLP blames Obama for “managing to downgrade the US credit rating.” Understanding of the complexity of the political situation would indicate that Obama played a minor role in this. Duels between the hard-line Republicans and Democrats in the legislature led to the downgrade–it had very little to do with the president.

    In what way is Obama running a “communist government that lectures us on how to run the economy?” Every single type of government determines economic policy: communist, socialist, capitalist, etc.–that’s the job of the government. Saying that Obama is somehow communist because he is attempting to determine economic policy is a statement of egregious naivete.

    I could mention the complexity inherent behind each of SLP’s simple statements; most of them are simply wrong, misleading, or naively one-sided. But the point is, if something is a good soundbite: “Obama wrecked the economy,” chances are it’s never that simple.

  15. TTT

    2000 – 2008 ‘Bush was spending like a drunken democrat’

    No, he was spending like a conservative. George W. Bush was a perfect, prototypical conservative. Conservatism stands for increasing the size, expense, and intrusiveness of big government, as well as social engineering and the redistribution of wealth.

    Don’t bother telling me what they *believe,* because I’ve lived through enough of what they actually *do* to be able to tell the difference. It’s just like when campus Marxists swear we can’t judge the perfect philosophy by insignificant little failures of mortal men.

  16. – Increased Bush’s last budget deficit by a factor of 10. Each year!

    I know Republicans like to claim that Obama was responsible for the deficit starting the day he took office, but George Bush passed the budget for the fiscal year ending in October 2009. That $1.4 trillion deficit goes to Bush. And the deficit for the year before that was $455 billion, so even if we gave you credit for an innocent mistake, you’re off by a factor of 3.

    – Wrecked the economy.

    I think Chris covered that one.

    – downgrade the credit rating of the United States of America

    Presidents don’t set the credit rating. And S & P has a pretty poor record on that front.

    – The fine was deliberately set to entice companies to drop their insurance coverage.

    Companies have been dropping insurance coverage for decades. That’s the main reason health care was a big issue in the 2008 election.

    – Unemployed and underemployed between 16 and 20 percent?

    Job losses peaked at 700,000 the month Obama took office. Again, this is months before he was able to get any legislation passed through Congress. Obama inherited a devastated economy from Bush, who had the worst track record on jobs ever recorded, according to the WSJ.

    And of course, you’re talking about rates that were typical of the Reagan years.

    – The fact it’s safer for a black man between 18 and 50 to be in prison than on the street?

    Violent crime is at historic lows right now, even in the inner city. Maybe you should avoid the more racist sites when getting your news.

    – The belief that if people took risks and worked hard they would have a future they could pass on to their children gone for a generation or more?

    Speak for yourself.

    – A communist government lecturing us on how to run an economy?

    They’ve been doing that since Lenin.

    – Higher interest rates?

    Interest rates are around 4.5% for 30 year mortgages. The federal funds rate is near the zero lower bound. Are you borrowing from loan sharks or pawn shops?

    – More expensive food, clothing and medical care?

    Inflation rates are also at historic lows. For food and medical care it’s around 3%. For clothing it’s less than 2%. Did I miss the Bush era of 0% inflation?

  17. Evil Merodach

    As for a communist country lecturing us on matters economic, the 2008-2009 Chinese stimulus package was larger than ours as a percentage of GDP — and that’s for an economy that was arguably overheated.

    The largest portion of the Chinese stimulus package went towards building infrastructure; over a third of the U.S. stimulus was in the form of tax cuts, which is an inefficient form of stimulus but was necessary to placate the Republicans.

    In short, the Chinese stimulus worked and ours was inadequate. So, yeah, they did things right and we didn’t.

    Unfortunately, we need another stimulus but Congress wants to fix the deficit rather than the economy. As usual we have the cart before the horse. After WWII the debt was at 120% of the GDP, larger than the current 100%. Did we pay that off that debt? No — we grew the economy.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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