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The brainless use of pop psychology to diss Obama
Critics claim to get inside Obama's head, and proclaim that the president is an indecisive failure. Nothing could be farther from the truth
 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum

Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen aspires to advise Democrats on political strategy. But his book The Political Brain reminds me of a scene in Theodore H. White's Making of the President: 1960, in which row after row of cigar smoking Boston pols is arrayed behind John F. Kennedy as he delivers the final speech of his presidential campaign, written on their faces a barely concealed envy which says Kennedy has a trick; and if they themselves had the trick, they too could be president. Westen's trick is common sense dressed up as pop psychology: The idea that leaders have to be passionate as well as rational.

In a New York Times blog post titled "Decision 2013," Westen is certainly passionate. He offers strong opinions about the shortcomings — perhaps the "narcissism" — of a president "tied up in knots of indecision" because "he fears precisely the emotions that allow us to choose between one course of action or another." It is a scathing indictment from someone who plainly feels his counsel and wisdom have been scorned. It is also a stunning repudiation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's insistence that people are entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

Westen assails the president for postponing the decision on an oil pipeline from Canada across the Midwest to refineries in the U.S: Obama should have killed it outright; delay could be deceit, with the president giving his approval after the 2012 election.

Ask Osama bin Laden if the president is indecisive.

There's no doubt that the administration differs with elements of the environmental movement on a central question of energy policy — developing new sources of domestic production during what will inevitably be a long transition to renewable and cleaner fuel. So yes, Obama may ultimately approve the pipeline. He hasn't yet, to the displeasure of an industry that ran a disapproving full page ad right there in the Times. But the reason for the delay was policy, not politics. As the State Department announced, "Concerns regarding the environmental sensitivities of the current proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska" call for "an in-depth assessment of potential alternative routes." The conservative Republican governor of Nebraska, who supports the pipeline, opposes the route. Obama did what any president or steward of the environment should. He decided to seek a way to tap the oil without endangering a critical landscape and aquifer. It wasn't Westen's preferred emotional decision to cancel the pipeline outright; it was rational — and on the evidence, it was right.

In a piece of innuendo worthy of Joe McCarthy, Westen adds that "no one knows...what deals the administration may have struck with the oil industry." No one knows because there is no evidence, absolutely none, of any such deal. Even worse, Westen asserts that Obama made a deal with health insurance companies to kill the public option in the health care reform bill. Where is the evidence? And where were the votes to pass a public option when a bill without it barely squeezed through?

Westen also attacks the president for not tightening clean air standards as proposed by the EPA. He falsely claims Obama said he wanted to "study" the issue. Apparently, he didn't read the president's statement. The standards are already scheduled to be reset in 2013 and it doesn't make sense to "ask... state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered." It's possible to disagree with this, although it makes a lot of sense. But it's an entirely unproven and unconvincing example of chronic presidential indecision.

Westen also compares Obama to "oilman George W. Bush" and his disdain for the environment. He ignores the historic decisions the president has made — among them, an agreement with automakers to double fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 and the directive to the EPA to review Bush-era restrictions so California and other states can set tougher standards for fuel efficiency and automobile emissions.

Westen next declares full-bore phony war on "Obama's 2013 Doctrine" of politically driven indecision and delay. He blasts the agreement on the debt ceiling for mandating budget cuts which, he archly notes, don't take effect until 2013. In fact, this was an important victory for the president and hardworking and out-of-work Americans. Making the cuts this year and in 2012, as the president explained, would have endangered "a fragile economy." That's why the cuts are spaced out over 10 years, to reduce the deficit as the economy recovers.

In Westen's world, we should blame the president for not "catapult[ing] Democrats to victory" in 2010, because Obama failed to make sure that the most popular provisions of health care reform were in effect by, say, September of 2010. This displays a breathtaking ignorance of both politics and policymaking. The midterm elections were a reaction to economic conditions — and Westen provides no argument and no proof that "the elimination of pre-existing conditions" would have turned the tide. One provision already in effect — which has let 1 million young adults remain on their parents' health insurance policies — didn't make a difference. Westen seems unaware, or doesn't care, that it was impossible to instantly extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured people. Enacting a law like health care reform is not, and never has been, the same as implementing it. Experts agree that this kind of major shift in one-sixth of the national economy has to be phased in over time. Westen's hero — and mine — Franklin Roosevelt, signed Social Security in 1935; the government began collecting payroll taxes in 1937; the first benefits were paid in 1940. Health care reform is more complex, with many more moving parts. Obama is ahead of FDR's schedule.

All of this politically calculated delay, according to Westen, is "bad politics." His evidence is that the president's approval ratings fell after last summer's failed "grand bargain" on the debt ceiling. This is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Approval ratings generally — for Congress, for Democrats, and Republicans — declined after the debacle of near default. Obama's remained higher than Congress', didn't drop very far, and are now on the rise again. In any event, should Obama have let the nation default — which would have thrown markets into collapse and potentially triggered another recession or depression? He is the president, and he's supposed to look out for the national interest — and incidentally, this outcome would have been very bad politics.

Finally, Westen launches an overall indictment of the president's character — that he doesn't know what he believes, or doesn't want us to know. Westen "proves" this in a simple-minded way that assumes policy and conviction are as one-dimensional as a Sarah Palin speech. Does Obama believe in helping an anemic economy by stimulating demand or cutting the budget? The answer is clear and on the record — spend in the near term to create jobs, and then cut the deficit in the long term as growth steadily strengthens. That happens to be good policy, one the president has fought hard for — and one sensible economists agree with.

What about making the wealthy pay their fare share? Why did Obama agree to a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts? Because in case of a deadlock, with all of the Bush tax cuts expiring at the end of 2010, a tax rise on the middle class would have body-slammed the economy. As part of the package, the president also secured extended unemployment compensation and a payroll tax holiday, which has saved 300,000 jobs, according to Macroeconomic Advisers' Joel Prakken. Ronald Reagan fervently believed in tax cuts, but raised taxes at least three times. Good presidents have to be pragmatic as well as principled. No one doubts where Obama stands on top-end tax increases; so clear is his position that he's now constantly accused of class warfare. If he's re-elected, the rich will pay more.

Westen's overall diagnosis? Obama is a president frozen in the ice of his own intellect, too logical, too rational, too disconnected from emotions. He qualifies this by saying he can't be sure of it, but then quotes an anonymous aide as saying that the president is "the most unsentimental man I've ever met." The couch here seems far removed from the patient. And the portrayal here of Obama is far removed from reality.

Ask Osama bin Laden if the president is indecisive. As for delay, health care reform was delayed for a century — and Obama passed it. The economy continues to be troubled, but Obama saved it from disaster by pushing through an unpopular stimulus plan over the near unanimous opposition of a Republican Party rooting for recession. Financial reform, student loan reform, credit card reform, the greatest infrastructure investment in a generation — the list goes on. These are not the markers of indecision and delay. Nor is something else progressive critics thought Obama could never achieve. It was Bill Clinton, who famously felt out pain, who inflicted plenty of it by signing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law. It was Obama who repealed it with a masterful sense of timing and a cool and rational approach to the Pentagon.

That is a hallmark of his presidency. An effective president can't be just a partisan, appealing solely to the base. But Obama has delivered more progressive change than anyone at anytime since the 1960s. He hasn't, as Westen writes, "just run out the clock." He's moved history ahead. And he deserves better than Westen's comparison of him to the flip-flopping Mitt Romney, and a suggestion that he's just intent on keeping "the one job that matters to him" — his own.

 

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