Westen vs. Chait on Obama

Keith Humphreys’ thoughtful post called to mind some thoughts I wanted to jot down after re-reading Drew Westen’s NYT piece on Obama and Jonathan Chait’s blistering response to Westen in the New Republic. Westen is surely a primary target of Keith’s scorn, and I agree with both Chait and Keith that Westen grossly exaggerates what a leader in Obama’s position could have been expected to accomplish.

Yet it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that Westen is onto something. Obama might not have been able to have achieved substantively different outcomes in many of the recent battles. But he does have the rhetorical skill to have forced Republicans to pay a much stiffer political price for their obstructionism. And his supporters can hardly be faulted for being upset that he chose not to.

Last December’s struggle about the Bush tax cuts on high-income households is a case in point. Many on the left have been bitterly critical of the president for capitulating to Republican demands on that issue. But consider the details of the choice the president faced. The status quo, written into the original Bush tax-cut legislation, was that ALL the Bush tax cuts, including those for middle-income families, would automatically expire on December 31, 2010. Then, as now, the economy was in the tank. Letting tax cuts on the wealthy expire wouldn’t have led them to spend less, since most of them weren’t spending nearly all their income to begin with. But letting them expire on middle-income families would have been a devastating blow to a crippled economy.

For many Republicans, letting that happen would have been perfectly acceptable, since it would have increased the party’s chances of recapturing the White House in 2012. So their threat was completely credible when they pledged to vote against the president’s proposal to let only the tax cuts on high-income families expire. And so, in the end, Obama chose to live with all the Bush tax cuts for the time being. A skilled game theorist could probably spin a narrative in which letting all the tax cuts expire would have been best, despite the disastrous short-term consequences for the economy. But Obama’s decision is surely the easier option to defend.

Much has been made of the fact that Obama didn’t demand concessions from Republicans about the looming debt ceiling issue during the December 2010 negotiations. But that misses the point, too. Since Republicans would have been happy to let all the Bush tax cuts expire (or, more precisely, because they knew Obama couldn’t let that happen), Obama simply had no leverage to demand any concessions.

What I cannot understand, however, is why the president and his team failed to capitalize on the political opportunities implicit in these battles. Republicans have been arguing in favor of lower taxes on the rich while simultaneously demanding immediate action to curb deficits. Some of the rhetorical components of this logically preposterous position may once have been popular with confused middle-income voters.  But no longer. Overwhelmingly, voters now favor higher taxes on the rich. The president may not have been able to prevent the Republicans from getting their way on the Bush tax cuts, but he could have put their reelection chances in much greater jeopardy had he forcefully attacked them on the merits of these issues.

It’s by no means too late. I hope he finds his voice.

Author: Robert Frank

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and the co-director of the Paduano Seminar in business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His “Economic View” column appears monthly in The New York Times. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech, then taught math and science for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nepal. He holds an M.A. in statistics and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California at Berkeley. His papers have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, and other leading professional journals. His books, which include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, and The Darwin Economy, have been translated into 22 languages. The Winner-Take-All Society, co-authored with Philip Cook, received a Critic's Choice Award, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, and was included in Business Week's list of the ten best books of 1995. He is a co-recipient of the 2004 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was awarded the Johnson School’s Stephen Russell Distinguished teaching award in 2004, 2010, and 2012, and its Apple Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.

20 thoughts on “Westen vs. Chait on Obama”

  1. What’s odd to me about this phenomenon Chait identifies (I think correctly) of the left’s infatuation with rhetoric, is that it doesn’t seem to really exist on the right. Sure, they speak in powerful language, but I think that power resides as much as anything in pure ideological simplicity and intransigence. It would be the equivalent of Obama saying he doesn’t want any spending cuts, only tax increases, period.

    Yet this is why we call the right crazy. Aside from substantive incoherence, they are simply taking positions that literally threaten the economy on a massive scale. This isn’t a function of Republican rhetoric, but the composition of the Republican electorate and the conservative movement in general.

    So, to try and match this phenomenon on the left, to try and drum up something similar within the voting left merely through rhetoric - through one man! - seems quite silly. At best it is cynical political posturing. Maybe it would be a good thing to be able to muster such a united front on the left. But doing so would likely come at great cost. Political unity and passion is one thing, but we don’t want the left to go go crazy. We don’t want ideology to trump reality and evidence. We don’t want an authoritarian mind-set that bristles at nuance, that is unable to reach across the aisle, that is only interested in demagoguery and simplistic fear-mongering.

    I don’t presume to have any answer to how to best respond to what seems such a frustratingly successful parade of right-wing dullardry. But I’ll gladly take the liberal-friendly principles of free thought and measured truth-seeking over authoritarianism’s blockheaded success.

  2. Dear Mr. Frank: It is worth noting that the December deal was popular, as measured by increases in approval ratings for Obama, the Republicans and Congress as a whole. Whether or not the deal was good policy, a majority of voters approved. In my estimation, the debt ceiling deal has caused far more left side of the Democratic Party alienation than the previous deal. It was demonstrably NOT good policy, it is unpopular as measured by declining approval ratings for both Obama and Republicans and most of all, Obama had the option to say he had the constitutional obligation to ignore the debt ceiling and maintain government as usual. This would have been a risk for him, but as long as he had 34 Senators willing to back him, there would be nothing the Republicans could have done about it. He chose instead to surrender to blackmail. THAT is the act of a weak leader, no, make that a weakling, period.

  3. It is imperative that Pres. Obama shine during Hurricane Irene. It is likely to generate a number of iconic images which will go viral over the coming weeks. That will overshadow all the rhetorical shortcomings which he has displayed with the Tea Party.

  4. Robert: Thanks for the kind words and this carefully analytic post.

    What I find most puzzling about the White House “narrative” is the lack of “storytelling” about what has already been accomplished. Successful auto companies spend most of their advertising these days on people who have already bought one of their cars…they want to make the person feel good about what they bought. I wish the WH would do the same thing. What I didn’t get about the WH communications office when I was in Washington and still don’t get now is why, every day after the ACA passed, there wasn’t a press event with a major administration figure focusing on one person who had benefited, on one day a 24 year old with schizophrenia who previously would have been too old for his parent’s insurance, on another day a person in chronic pain who was finally able to get insurance despite a pre-existing condition..in short a communications strategy focused on making people feel good about what they already bought.
    In the absence of that rhetoric, the ACA fell victim to opposition spin that it was job killing, and sulky left spin that it was of no value because it wasn’t universal payer.

  5. You put your finger on two points that are central, certainly to my disappointment with Obama. One is that he seems to have no skill at what should be a basic political practice, namely wrong-footing his opponents. Or has no interest in it, or some combination of the two. He can’t or won’t back them into rhetorical corners by defining their positions. Second is that he has exacted absolutely no price from anyone I can think of for going against him. In fact, he’s shown that if you resist him and diss him, you get your way.

    The two are clearly related, in that wrong-footing opponents is one potentially very powerful way of exacting a price for opposition, even when he’s in the weak position you describe and the practical outcome can’t really be different than it was. It’s also basic retail politics, which Democrats generally have lost their touch at over the past 30 years; Bill Clinton is the major exception and yes, what happened to him is that goopers successfully convinced the DC media corps that he was slick and a playah and too clever by half. But the public always liked him and still does. Almost everybody else at the national level seems too wrapped up in wonkish shorthand that can’t connect or afraid of their own (media) shadows.

    I’ll tell you what really bothers me most about the way Obama has operated. It’s that from where I sit, he’s always hung his own allies in congress out to dry. As an example, I think the healthcare discussions could have come out very differently if the WH had been more visibly and judiciously involved from the start, rather than letting things flounder and thrash around without any visible direction and then stepping in as the “adult” months later. It was his campaign pledge and his initiative, and leaving congress to operate on its own gave too much shaping power to enemies who wanted it to fail and to interested parties who wanted to milk it.

    I could be wrong about this because I wasn’t paying quite so much attention at the time, but even in the deepest depths of triangulation I don’t remember Clinton wiping his hands so completely of his allies in congress.

    And I sure don’t remember Clinton sitting back and never speaking up for a position on things. What is *up* with that?

    “Above the fray” might have been sort of reasonable compared to the operation the bush people were running. Not now. The situation has changed. He needs to come down from the clouds and stand somewhere.

  6. More inside the box thinking from Robert Frank. How pathetic.

    It is ridiculous to believe that allowing the federal income tax rates to go back to what people paid when Clinton was president is anything other than a blip for most people. For the rich, it may appear to be alot, but they have so much damned money they’d only feel a blip at most if anything.

    Had Obama let the cuts expire, he would then have been able to campaign-yes, campaign even in 2010 and the beginning of this year-saying, “I want to restore the tax cuts for middle class people, the Republicans want the fat cats to keep getting fatter.” That’s what leadership does with a recalcitrant opposition. It shames. It directly confronts.

    Obama is a loser leader. He should step aside. And if he does not step aside, another Democrat who knows how to lead and believes in New Deal values, needs to run a primary against him.

  7. I agree with Mitchel and anybody else of like mind. I cannot for the life of me imagine LBJ or FDR or Harry Truman behaving like Obama has. Not under any scenario. You don’t treat a bully nicely.

  8. Why not let the tax cuts expire while introducing bill essentially reinstating them for low-middle income taxpayers? Force the GOP to vote against that.

    I largely agree with Altoid. Obama needs to fight harder, even if the outcome is the same. That, more than anything, is what has turned me from an admirer to a sort of, “better him than a Republican” supporter.

    Time after time he concedes ground unnecessarily or prematurely, and from where I sit he seems totally unable to grasp that the Republicans’ main objective is to destroy his Presidency. When Obama spoke about the debt ceiling, just a couple of days before the deadline, he said something like, “We need a bipartisan solution.” I was furious. No. We need an intelligent solution, and the GOP was unwilling to agree to one. Obama completely handed over the initiative by conceding that Republican positions were reasonable. He shoild have begun by saying, correctly, that anything but a clean bill was a bad idea. Go form there, not from speeches about the need to tighten belts, and so on.

  9. I don’t know how you can conclude that it would have been “perfectly acceptable” to Republicans to let the middle-class tax cuts expire. The tax cuts for the rich are what they care about most. But defense of the rich is their biggest political vulnerability. December was Obama’s moment of peak leverage, and he wasted it. Do you think Bill Clinton would have done the same?

  10. I wonder to what extent many of the commenters here are imagining that, if Obama had acted differently, that things would be different. I see no real reason to buy this. I think Chait makes the case well enough. I suppose I would like Obama’s rhetoric to match my feelings more closely. But I think the reality is that he is more reflective of a polity, a large portion of Democrats and independents, that does not feel as I do and is much more uncomfortable with the direction of such moves.

    Chait’s piece said it better than I could hope to. I worry that this fantasy exists - reminiscent of late-administration conservative attitudes toward Bush - that if only the president had been a “true” movement operator, everything would have gone better. It seems a convenient way to avoid the painful truth that the country is simply not where you are, and the president (along with his administrative and congressional ambitions) will always largely reflect this public truth.

  11. It’s not true that Obama had no leverage. Republicans didn’t want to let the tax cuts for the rich expire which is how Obama got some stimulus. I think Obama should have pushed for the debt ceiling to raise since the deal increased the debt and that was a big mistake. The other thing that deal accomplished was allowing START and dodt to pass.

    I also don’t think the Republicans care about a political price on obstruction because their base wants obstruction.

  12. To those who say there was nothing Obama could do I would remind you that the voters recently jammed the Congressional phone lines. Why? Because a President told them to.

  13. Wait a minute. The Republicans wanted to make the Bush cuts permanent but they also would have been happy to let them expire? I’m confused. Extending the cuts is what the Reeps got out of the deal while extending unemployment benefits & a payroll tax cut is what Obama got. And in point of fact the payroll tax cut was really a stocking stuffer for the Reeps because it lowers revenue for Social Security & Medicare and it will be difficult to restore the rates if/when the Bush cuts do finally expire.

  14. Eli, As for the left’s infatuation with rhetoric, I tend to associate this with the academic left, which has been infected by loony theories from the humanities. Folks who work with words seem particularly susceptible to this stuff. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, swooning over talk of “framing,” and so forth…up to and including a certain soft spot for linguistic version of social constructionism. Witness, e.g., the popularity of the term ‘narrative,’ which term has its roots in lit-critty theories that try to denigrate the distinction between words (and beliefs) and facts. “Building a narrative” is supposed to suggest something more profound than telling a story or asserting a theory. Bad theories about the magical power of language are…uh..well…bad. It pains me to see liberals falling for this stuff…or even to see their intellectual trajectories altered by it.

  15. “It’s by no means too late. I hope he finds his voice.”

    Not too late? Then the assumption must be present that Obama can someone revive the energy that got him elected in the first place.

    Instead, like his failure to extract a political price when he had no other options to deal with the Republicans, Obama has spent the better part of three years demobilizing his base of support. Many of those who voted for him in 2008 were first time voters. As hard as it is to bring new people to the minimum of political participation by simply showing up to vote, this is at best a near-fatal mistake.

    And Obama shows no sign of reinventing himself in a way that will allow him to launch the kind of vigorous attack on the Republicans necessary to revitalize his base. Oftentimes, the argument used against those on the left who complain is “Look at the alternative!” Well, Obama seems to be working himself into position to hand things over to Perry or whatever nutcase becomes the Rep nominee without a substantive challenge from the left in sight.

    And all the more reason for those who might launch a substantive challenge from the left to do so in 2012. It’s unlikely to siphon any votes from Obama. He’s already managed to throw them away, anyway.

  16. michael friedman: “It is ridiculous to believe that allowing the federal income tax rates to go back to what people paid when Clinton was president is anything other than a blip for most people.”

    During a period of huge unemployment, zero job growth, and negligible GDP growth, the political optics of increased taxes on the middle class, no matter how sensible, would have been toxic beyond belief. The Republicans knew they had Obama over a barrel on that one; there was no way they were going to let Obama “raise”* taxes on the rich without the poisonous “raise” on the middle class as well.

    Given that, Obama’s biggest failure was failing to pressure Congress to deal with the issue before the elections so that the Democrats could run as tax-cutters. Which is part of the larger problem of the Dems in general and Obama in particular not making enough hay out of the Republican insistence on bad, unpopular policy.

    *The distinction between “raise taxes” and “fail to extend a sunsetting tax cut” is not trivial but is also not one that the political press is interested in making.

  17. There isn’t going to be a credible challenge from the left in 2012 and it’s stupid for people to be talking like there might be one.

    There was a bill to preserve the tax cuts for those under 250k (I think that’s the number) and let them expire over. Passed the House. Got 53 votes in the Senate, which isn’t enough. People can say that maybe Obama might have done something to get those 7 more senators, but I’m not hearing any specific explanations what exactly he could have done. If if the bill can’t get 60, then the option is off the table. So, they had the choice: all cuts are preserved or all cuts expire. Polling was overwhelmingly in favor of the former, and while maybe Obama could have ridden it out (he may yet win reelection despite all his failures) there’s no way the Dems in Congress were going to take that risk for themselves.

    There’s nothing wrong with Monday morning quarterbacking. But saying that a team that lost should have been making 70 and 80 yard field goals rather than punting the ball away on fourth downs is a stupid waste of everyone’s time.

Comments are closed.