A lot of people on the left have been talking about Drew Westen’s piece, “What Happened to Obama,” in the New York Times yesterday. Here’s a link, in case you missed it – but if so get it today or run into their paywall.
Westen, like many (me too) wants to bring back the New Deal. More important, he understands that politics is built on stories. He wants Obama to tell a story about incredibly wealthy people in investment banks, hedge funds, and (my addition) bond-rating agencies, whose major motivation is to be come even wealthier. These people’s greed caused the economic collapse of 2009, and they should pay the costs. Instead, the government has been bailing them out. We’ve let the banks who issued fraudulent mortgages get off free, while doing very little to alleviate the suffering of those they swindled, and who now risk losing their homes.
It’s a powerful story, and Westing tells it much better than I just have! However, he barely mentions (except in a few words at the end) that there is another story. In this story, the problem is squabbling politicians who are so focused on their partisan maneuvers that they don’t care about ordinary people’s problems.
Most Americans believe both stories. As far as I can tell, Obama only believes the second. When he compromises with the Republicans on their terms (or on mixed terms, as with the budget deal last December), that is the story he has in mind. He wants people to see him as someone who really cares about their problems, who will sacrifice his own partisan views if he has to do that to save jobs, to prevent default, or anything else of major public importance.
That story was the basis of Ross Perot’s appeal, and it always worked for him. The trouble is, Obama is actually running the country. To really win, he has to do more than show that he cares about the nation’s problems. He has to solve those problems. The compromise solutions he goes for don’t.
It’s pretty clear what we need: massive job creation to get the economy going, then letting the Bush tax cuts lapse and getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that the new revenue from economic growth can go into basic public services and deficit reduction. But you can’t get that program through bipartisan compromise, because the Republicans are dead set against it.