Never have I seen so many of my Facebook friends, particularly my communication colleagues, link to a piece the way they have linked to Drew Westin's "What Happened to Obama?" (This is the print edition title). I can see why. I agree with much of it. It's clear, compelling, and appeals to much that is in all of us. And that's precisely the problem with the enthusiasm. Three reservations to consider.
First, Westen makes stories--rhetoric--absolutely central to political success. He believes the human brain is hard wired to love stories. In Weston's judgment, Obama has failed to tell a good story. Ergo, he struggles politically. The fact that Westen's "story" is a syllogism (Major premise--human brain hearts stories. Minor premise: Obama sucks. Conclusion: Obama struggles) should caution us about the universality of the sweeping claims he makes. Equally important, he plays to our prejudices--"our" meaning liberal rhetoric professors like me--in two ways: 1) Rhetoric is the most important thing in the whole world. 2) Obama should have governed as a full-bore liberal. As Aristotle pointed out, it's easier to praise Athenians in Athens than it is to praise Laecedemonians. No wonder every liberal comm professor is posting this.
More important, perhaps, is the fact that, while we like stories, narrative alone makes for dangerous politics. Bill Lewis taught that to us in his magnificent 1987 QJS essay on Ronald Reagan. Narratives need evaluation in terms of their evidence and argument. Even if you grant that we are "hard-wired" to like narrative, we should learn argument. As we should have discovered even in the past few months, facts are useful.
Second, Westen nicely--and slickly--disclaims his expertise: "As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant, I will venture some hypotheses." The second half of this sentence negates the first; he resists temptation nearly as well as Hef. Westen uses his expertise as a psychologist to explain the behavior of a person he has never met. Dr. Drew awaits!
I am always dubious about "experts" who 1) venture well outside their areas of expertise and continue to use the tools of that expertise; and 2) disclaim their expertise while using their expertise. If Westen believes Obama has failed to "resolve his identity," that is, um, a psychological evaluation. Honesty is the best policy. Look, Westen thinks Obama should have tacked farther to the left, that he should have denounced the moneychangers in the temple. Great. I agree. But don't claim, even implicitly, that expertise in psychology guarantees the success of this recommendation.
Connected to that is the utter lack of context--he makes sweeping claims about the nature of the human brain, he generalizes his personal reactions to Obama to the population at large, and, shaped by his training, he assumes the problem is in Obama's head. Kenneth Burke refers to that as "occupational psychosis," or, to use the vernacular, if you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
And that's the final reservation I have. Look, for those of us old enough to remember politics clearly, you could substitute "Clinton" for "Obama" throughout this op-ed and you'd have a lovely example of the sort of thing that appeared throughout 1995. The last two Democratic presidents have run inspiring, vaguely populist campaigns that promised to right the wrongs of the Republicans. Each, then, has tacked strongly to the center, if not the right, once they landed in the presidency. Liberals screamed angrily about each one as a result.
This suggests that the problem rests not in Obama's head, but in the state of American politics--in the partisan divide (twice as many people say they are conservative as liberal), in the traditions of speech the men have inherited, in the cultural definitions of liberalism, in the economic divide that plagues the country, in the lack of a liberal infrastructure analogous to the conservative one, etc. It is a problem with multiple dimensions.
I believe rhetoric matters. I think this article makes some good points, particularly when he discusses Obama's habit of contradicting himself. But the fact that the last two Democratic presidents--both superb orators--have both struggled in precisely the same sorts of ways suggests that a pretty story, a misplaced nostalgia for the past, will not make our boo-boo better.