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On the Media: Left's attacks on Obama may underestimate him

Drew Westen's criticism in the New York Times has drawn attention, but some other liberals are pushing back at his picture of the president.

August 10, 2011|James Rainey
  • President Barack Obama makes a statement in the State Dining Room of the White House about the continuing economic toil gripping markets in the US and around the globe in Washington DC, USA, 08 August 2011. Obama also spoke about the soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan over the weekend.
President Barack Obama makes a statement in the State Dining Room of the… (EPA )

You knew it would be a rough week for President Obama when one of the sharpest attacks began, not in the familiar precincts on the right, but in the New York Times' Sunday Review section, where an extra-long cover piece bemoaned the president's lack of leadership, fire and philosophical core.

Psychologist and Democratic advisor Drew Westen railed about our economic crisis and how Obama allegedly has tried to appease his way to a solution. The 3,000-word essay depicted the president as a rudderless politician who "seems … compelled to take both sides of every issue."

Commentator Andrew Sprung correctly described it as a "rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland." It also amounted to an exclamation point on the run-on sentence of disappointment and occasional recrimination against Obama from some of the most familiar opinion-makers on the left. With varying degrees of intensity, the likes of E.J. Dionne Jr., Maureen Dowd, Robert Reich and (with particular vehemence and frequency) Paul Krugman have demanded Obama more adamantly lay out what he believes in, fight with some emotion and give no quarter to the extreme forces in the Republican Party.

But even as a meta-narrative, "Democrats Eating Their Own," begins to take form, other liberals are pushing back against the Obama the Meek trope, arguing for a more fulsome look at what brought the country, and economy, to its current state of wretched dysfunction. Front and center in the rebuttal: exploding the theory that more passion and conviction, alone, would have produced more victories.

The specter of liberals turning on hero Obama has an irresistible appeal in a conventional news sense. But a preoccupation on what's changed neglects what hasn't — a disgust reflected in polls that extends from the left to many in the middle for those who trumped up and exploited the debt ceiling crisis just as the economy was at its most vulnerable.

Westen's essay hits Obama for failing to focus the public's animus not on government but on "conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out." The Emory University professor argues that Obama's biggest shortcoming has been as storyteller in chief.

Coming to office in the midst of an economic crisis, the president failed in large measure because he was too timid or bent on bipartisanship to call out true enemies of the people — powerful businesses, banks and lobbyists who fought to preserve their inordinate share of the nation's wealth, Westen maintains. He has argued for some time that progressive leaders have often failed because they make cerebral appeals that fail to seize the emotional truths felt by everyday people.

Obama didn't realize that his Republican opponents would never give in and that "the only effective response was to face the bully down." While Westen wonders if those errors might have been merely tactical, the Times essay concludes with harsher aspersions that Obama might be failing because of a lack of deeply held convictions, excessive fealty to campaign donors or a deficit of substance he carried with him to the Oval Office.

Westen's take landed with enough force to prompt a spate of rebuttals, most notably from Jonathan Chait in the New Republic online. Chait reality-tested several historical analogies and chastised what he called "a parody of liberal fantasizing."

Chait set about to explode the notion that the president — through dint of passion and speechifying alone — can blow aside fierce congressional opposition and special interest lobbying. He mocked the idea that "uncompromising liberal success" would ensue if Obama merely deployed the "awesome weapon" of his own rhetoric.

Much of the media version of the debt debate has centered on how much, not whether, the federal government should cut. That's notwithstanding previous findings, from nonpartisan sources such as the Congressional Budget Office, that previous expenditures might have been all that stood between America and deeper financial turmoil.

Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist at Princeton and New York Times columnist, has argued for months against retreating from more government action. The Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik has made the same argument, including in a page one column Tuesday. Krugman compared the slashers to "medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them sicker."

It's impossible to know what would have happened if Obama had pursued a more confrontational approach. What has been quickly forgotten, though, as Chait points out, is that Obama had to struggle to get even the original stimulus package past a skeptical Congress and that the president can cajole all he wants, but he doesn't control the purse strings.

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