“What happened to Obama?” The title of liberal professor Drew Westen’s unintentionally humorous essay in Sunday’s New York Times is not so much a question as a lament. And while the mainstream media’s narrative during the debt crisis has been how negotiating with Tea Party conservatives is like negotiating with terrorists, Westen’s piece inadvertently reveals how negotiating with at least some liberals is like negotiating with children.
“It was a blustery day in Washington,” begins Westen’s similarly blustery essay. Westen describes his feelings as he stood watching President Obama’s inauguration speech with his eight-year-old daughter: “I had a feeling of unease,” writes Westen. “It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.”
What story did Obama not tell? Westen offers up the inauguration speech that might have been, the speech that Westen, speaking on behalf of “the American people,” needed to hear: “I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”
Had I been picky, I might have wondered how Republicans living in 2011 could be the “same people” who caused the Great Depression, or whether it would be wise for Obama to tout that he was trying to address modern economic challenges by digging up ideas from 80 years ago (and which didn’t even work then).
It would be news to most of us that Obama, who reflexively blames Republicans for everything, has omitted to tell the story of how “conservative extremists” and their Wall Street cronies were responsible for the mess that Obama inherited. In fact, given Obama’s compulsion for public speaking, it would be news to most of us that he has omitted to say anything. But no, insists Westen, what “the American people” hunger for is a president who is even more willing to blame others: “When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.” That’s right. Rather than identifying the villain with specificity, Obama typically uses impersonal, cryptic code words such as “George W. Bush” and “the Republicans.”