Open Thread: Drew Westin’s NYT Op-Ed on “What Happened to Obama?”


Over the weekend, Drew Westin took to the NYT to discuss Obama’s “lack of passion”:

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze.

Westin argues that Obama hasn’t proactively shaped the narrative. Thoughts?

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  • Andrew

    Wow, this really gave me some food for thought on my entire approach…as an actual voter (which I am) instead of always playing armchair political strategist. Interesting take.

  • Nonso Christian Ugbode

    I was mainly struck in this article by Westin’s claim that Obama seems allergic to narratives with villains. For me it explained everything, there is this knee-jerk inclination to not paint any problem as having a human source. It’s always, let’s forget the source, and hold hands towards the future. This is what I think most people are reacting against, it’s just a natural instinct – we need villains. And if you’re a president who is not going to tell us who those villains are, the automatic assumption is that you must be one of them. I seriously hope that is what the Obama team walks away with from that article. All the assertions on Obama’s personality are irrelevant I think, you can’t really know or claim to know the man, but it is plain to see he and his people have no idea how to tell stories of bad guys, or are just unwilling to make anybody a bad guy. That’s both stupid and silly.

  • Gbe

    I really appreciated Drew Westin’s comments on Obama and agree with some of it.  He isn’t a bully and he does want everyone to work together for the good of the country.  What terrible crimes! The comparison to FDR isn’t fair on so many levels.  He is not FDR. In the days of FDR the news media consisted of news writers and radio. I’m certainly no historian, but it seems to me that at the time most news people tried to give balance to reporting.  There were only 2 political parties and there was still a semblance of serving the people there. The media had not gone berserk. FDR was a bully and talented and yes made a lot of good things happen through intimidation. Good for him. FDR aside, Obama is a man, working hard to make some good things happen.The American people need to to be better informed on why we need the change Obama promised. Not that it would help much.  Unemployment is the only thing on the minds of so many people with no job. People want easy solutions and a steady paycheck. Disillusioned they tune in to Rush Limbaugh and that ilk and consider themselves informed.  God help us.

  • jvansteppes

    I think many progressives have been very generous in forgiving Obama for making the cynical moves we feared he would make in the face of the Republican batshit express, but there have been a few moments when the disappointment has actually shocked me. I was certain that Obama would oversee some kind of justice for Omar Khadr, the Canadian child charged as a terrorist because apparently fighting against an invading army counts as terrorism if that army is American and nevermind if you were 15 and tortured into confessing. His trial was a farce and the current administration could have done something. I can’t believe Obama didn’t do more for him.

  • Anonymous

    My daughter posted this on her Facebook page the other day: The Democrats see the glass as half empty. The Republicans see the glass as theirs. Obama’s mistake, from day one, has been believing that he could present reason to the Republicans and they would see sense and work with him.

     I was watching Tim
    Ryan on C-SPAN. He’s a  Democrat and Represenative from my own home state of Ohio. I liked a lot of what he had to say –
    up to the point where he said, “John Boehner is a reasonable man,” and I
    could have gone batshit trying to call in and only getting a busy
    signal of course.

    In that moment I realized what’s wrong with
    people like Tim Ryan. He doesn’t have a dog in this fight because he has
    too much money. He’s a reasonable man but to him, and the other
    Democrats like him, this is all just an intellectual debate. It’s a
    shame but Tim Ryan and the rest of the Dems have NO IDEA how bad things
    are in the America you and I live in and we already know that the
    Republicans don’t care. He went on to say that he finds the Republican’s
    position on the debt ceiling “disgusting” but then went on to say that
    John Boehner is a “good guy”.

    He reminded me of President Obama
    in the beginning of his term in office. The President really thought he
    could present reason to Republicans and that they would actually listen.
    Mr. President said, “Let’s bring the troops home,” and Republicans
    said, “Muslim dictator communist Kenyan.” Mr. President said, “Let’s
    help Americans with healthcare,” and Republicans said, “Obamacare witch
    doctor muslim dictator communist Kenyan.” Mr. President said let’s work
    on the economy and Republicans said, “Touch me and my rich corporate
    donors tax breaks and we’ll f*ck up the entire world economy, just watch
    us work.”

    People like Tim Ryan and Barack Obama think that
    people like Boehner are good people with ideological differences. I went
    to hear Joe Biden speak this past June and he said something along the
    lines that Republicans really believe they’re doing what’s best for the
    country, they just have bad judgement. I wanted to stand up and ask him
    was he f*cking serious? Democrats seem to not know or not care that
    Republicans know EXACTLY what they are doing and the Dems seem to have
    no clue that Boehner and the other rich conservatives are playing this
    power grab For Keeps.

    As long as the Democrats take the Ryan and
    Obama path and stay this clueless and keep trying to deal with the
    devil, to reason with the unreasonable, then we can continue to say
    goodbye to anything that Liberals and Progressives try to protect as
    American values.

    And we can say goodbye to the last remnants of our country as we know it.

  • Pickly

    What seems strange to me is that, whether Obama’s actions come from lobbying, lack of a strong enough personality, etc., is how many pundit and political types miss some big positives that could come from not compromising on certain things, even when it merely comes to getting reelected. 

    For a couple of examples: I rarely or never, for instance, see arguments that remember the fact that a stronger or weaker economy seems to have a major effect on who gets elected.  Not compromising away elements on, say, the stimulus payments a couple of years ago, or possibly other programs mentiioned some time ago, could very likely have resulted in less unemployment/a stronger economy, which is quite a strong selling point at the very least.  Similarly, a less compromised health care plan may (depending on how quickly it was implimented) have resulted in a strong selling point of more people having access to good health care.  Improved unemployment/economic conditions, from recent history, would at the very least have a stronger effect on elections than republican associated pundits using slightly more “socialism” in what they write/say (they already seem pretty well saturated whenever I take a look, so not much to loose here anyway), or the fact that one person said something differently about something else.   Something similar may apply to health as well.

  • Anonymous

    I personally believe Democrats and Republicans have become different sides of the same coin on many policy issues; that’s why with the debates over the debt ceiling and the eventual deal that has emerged there’s been no tackling of the real reasons for the ballooning deficit, namely the Bush era tax cuts, bailouts of banks and insurance companies and spending on needless wars around the world.  Of course because they have no real policy differences both parties have to find something to attack each other on. And the Republicans don’t care about getting personal with the Democrats, which is why you have them fiercely making racist, classist attacks against Obama. At the end of the day though both parties will continue to be in the deep pockets of the rich, which means the poor and middle class just get screwed over. 

  • Wendi Muse

    no matter who is president, no matter his/her race, his/her gender, background (educational, economic, racial, you name it), in the end they all end up corporate pawns. even if one were to entirely eliminate the tea party and extreme right conservatives from the equation, the simple fact of the matter is that no president can escape the power of capitalism and its hand in corporate dealings with the government (mainly via lobbyists). as our nation falls further into the abyss, and ultimately loses respect on a global level exponentially with every decision it makes, my interest in the possibility of governance in earnest, without the need to appease corporations and the wealthy in order to get anything accomplished, diminishes. it’s gotten worse and worse with every decade, and with our economic decline once again on the menu (meaning a call for even more extremism against ethnic groups, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups (see um…every government in the history of the world)), we’ve not got many options in terms of the direction we will go. the president is just the face. everything that actually happens goes on elsewhere. 

  • Anonymous

    As for Mr Westin: I think he’s kind of right, but sort of goes after the wrong target.  I think that the *Democrats and progressives*–not just the good POTUS–really don’t have a cohesive message beyond “let’s be fair and let’s get along and make the world a better place.” (Wait! I did it! POTUS Obama should hire me as Chief Story Coordinator! /sarcasm) IMO, what happens is, when a person wants to look at the Democrats and leftward positions, the person gets 50-11 kablillion talking points and a whole lot of online fallouts because one set of liberal and/or left-leaning people vehemently disagrees with another set of people who also professes the same name but may not be feeling all those talking points.  Then people get told their not “liberal/progressive enough,” feelings get hurt, people run off to their corners, reconciliation is attempted, points are still disagreed with. Repeat ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

    Now, if someone like a Westin says, “Ya know, maybe we (Westin self-identifies as a Democrat) need to have a consistent message (what he would call a “story”) to win people to our side…”, liberals and progressives give him and people like him The Finger and tell them, in essence, “No one’s the boss of *me,* man. We need to win elections, not tell stories to the masses.” And the fracturing and in-fighting continues. 

    But the thing is–and what makes the Right so successful at constantly positioning and recrafting the public discourse is–they do have a rather consistent message because they have a consistent story.  And just about anyone on the Right–from Rush Limbaugh to Michelle Bachmann to Herman Cain to Ann Coulter to the Tea Party to Donald Rumsfeld to William Kristol–can tap into that story and hammer it into the US (and worldwide, considering that Murdoch, another conservative, owns quite a chunk of media outlets and is able to help get that message/story out globally) public discourse.  Yes, it may be the most bigoted, craven, mean-spirited, vicious, lie-laden story to enter the public discourse…and that doesn’t negate the reality of its existence and how it’s affecting popular opinion and public policy.  Yeah, a few of us on the left may want to get mad about the story and the storytellers, but when we’re offered the chance to offer a cohesive counter-narrative, we tend to flounder and reinvent the wheel and want to ::sigh:: “educate” people with our various facts-and-stats flounderings and reinventions.

    And, some of us may not want to admit it, but quite a few of us really dug  not only Obama’s message (The Audacity of Hope) but the story of how he arrive to his message (Dreams of My Father). I think what Westin is calling Obama to do is come up with or get back to his story and message to, at least, win another four years.  He needs to extend that message to just about everyone leaning left politically.

    With that said, where Westin himself fails is, in his book The Political Mind he says the Democrats should come up with a narrative about race to counter the Right’s racism. But he then employs a stereotype of “Middle Eastern-looking” men robbing a store, IIRC. So, on this point, Westin may want to get his own story right…

  • Anonymous

    <i.And by the way, 8 years ago there was a white man in the white house and he was stinking up the place……there was no revolution!  Let’s keep it real.

    Amen to this all. damn. day. And, back in the 80s, there was another white man who stank up the place hard–yep, talking about Ronald Reagan and his Southern Strategy-formulated administration, upon whose communicated coded racism we are still reeling from and fighting with from *to this day.* (Where do you think the Tea Party (crudely) learned what they say and do now?) And there was no revolution in the US streets.  Not with him (he, who started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi–where  the KKK murdered Civil Rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman). Not with Bush, Sr. (The Willie Horton ad  campaign and calling his some of his grandchildren his “little brown ones”). Not with Clinton (he, of “ending welfare as we know it” campaign and slipshodding an apology for US slavery). Not with Bush, Jr. (who, among other things, fully crafted Islamophobia into a defense–if not a social–policy under the code words “the War on Terror”). Not in 30+ years–the span of time some of the Racialicious readers have been alive and holding opinions. 

    Now, have there been actions in the US streets in these 30+ years? Yes. But not this mass revolution, at least how, IMO, pop culture and some people seem to think “they” were doing it in the late 60s and early 70s.  And even at that, how people of the “60s Generation” remembered that time varies, depending on the person’s race, gender, sexual ID, class, educational level, etc. Yes, some have the heart-stirring memories of Woodstock and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and the Kent State shootings. But, what we’re dealing with now is another set of folks from that same demographic who detested those “hippies” and “radicals” and, by hook and crook (and a *lot* of concerted organization), got into positions where they could formulate and implement what we’re dealing with right now.  And, to be fair, quite a few “radicals” and “hippies” and those believing/rolling/styling as if put down their doobies, put on their business suits, and shifted their thinking, too.

    So, let’s keep it really real.

  • Anonymous

    If Obama had gone all black militant against the Republicans and the Tea Party,  and gotten involved in a 4 year pissing match, what would have been accomplished?  There has been absolutely no intelligence in any of the discourse since Obama decided to run.  All of the opposition to Obama has been racist and ignorant.  The media should take a lot of the blame for coddling the Tea Party and not loudly and relentlessly denouncing them and the Republicans for being the bigots that they are. 

    • Anonymous

      False dichotomy much? Surely there are options somewhere between the extremes of abject capitulation and black militancy. 

  • Anonymous

    *Canadian speaking* I think that Obama is in a lose-lose situation. He knows it, everyone with a healthy level of cynicism knows it, and it is unfortunate but a real reality. What bothers me is the level of hatred from the GOP, the Tea Party and their ilk as to being so vehemently against a Black man in the White House that they were willing to throw all Americans under the bus. But he is a politician and while I do believe that he had some real notions of societal and economic change for Americans, people usually lie to get to where they want to be.

    I do find the comparisons to MLK really, really stupid and offensive. Dude, this is in a different age and time. Yes, in an idealistic world if he could be the peace lovin’ person that we are all told MLK was, what everyone needs ( well, what Black folks would like to see) is a little more Malcolm in the mix right now. However, we all know his ass wouldn’t last long if that were the case. 

    • Lisapetrov

      More Malcolm, indeed. A revolution of thinking is what needs to happen. That, and a cow prod in the backsides of those who don’t understand what it means to participate in, and not merely observe, democracy.  A solid period of enlightenment is what is most needed, I say.

      I’m assuming you are speaking of Malcolm X, right?  What part of his thinking/acting/being is needed most right now? Just curious.

  • Anonymous

    I actually agree with a number of hypotheses Westin presents at the end of the article, specifically, that Obama was too inexperienced to take on the myriad of problems facing the country and that he ran on the contradictory platforms of reform and compromise. However, can we put a moratorium on historical comparisons in op-eds unless the author is a historian? They are always inaccurate on anything but the most shallow level, and totally detract from an otherwise balanced argument.

    For instance, yes, the Democratic party would be well-served by a easy-to-swallow narrative that pins all our troubles on Wall Street and the Bush era. However, Westin completely ignores how Obama’s race would have played in such a strategy. Or perhaps he is not aware that (tragically) Obama is not actually a “magical negro” and thus cannot dole out advice like butterscotch.

    (Same goes for comparisons with social activists. Obama is, at the end of the day, a politician. My condolences to anyone who thought otherwise.)

  • Val

    So we are supposed to blame the victim of bullying? The Tea Party crazies refuse to compromise. So how is the President supposed to deal with that? Should he have allowed the government to shutdown? Should he have allowed millions of disabled and elderly Americans to not receive their Social Security or disability checks to prove how tough he is? 

    Bullies are psychopaths and you cannot deal with them by trying to be tougher than they are. This stuff is more complicated than just standing up to bullies. The Tea Party is a group of psychopaths who are more than willing to do great harm to this country just to make the President look bad. 

    So although I think Obama has been lacking in many ways as he has moved to the center and totally ignored African Americans, his handling of the Tea Party crazies was the only way to go.

    • Eva

      You said it Val.  These Tea Party nutcases are nothing but a bunch of psychotic bullies.  What do people want Obama to do, walk into congress carrying two M-16’s and saying, “say hello to my little friends?”

    • Anonymous

      Seriously, that whole bully analogy was completely misguided.

    • Anonymous

      Seriously, that whole bully analogy was completely misguided.

    • Pickly

      There were a lot of suggestions from various places for handling the debt ceiling.  (Deal with it back last year, use a 14th amendment interpretation to require payments anyway, use various other loopholes, Push for a straight debt ceiling increase from the beginning of the several week period as the issue unfolded.)

      This sort of stuff has been occuring since Obama got elected, and the strategy was pretty clear from the first few bills introduced (like the stimulus bill), so Obama’s people not being prepared/strengthening themselves up for something like this during that time does not speak well of them.

    • Anonymous

      Obama’s suppose to be a leader who stands tall in the face of opposition, not negotiate with it. That’s the point. Every time people need him to stand up, he compromises. He needs to deal with his aversion to conflict before you end up with a Tea Party Lite policy, negotiated and compromised to avoid their wrath. 

  • Keith

    Why was the Election of Obama something we should considered ground breaking when it should be accepted that the  best man for the job was elected at least that’s what  the majority of Americas elected him thought. It’s
    a rhetorical question.

    The fact is that Obama was a fan of Ronald Reagen and like every other president before him has continued Reagen’s neo liberal reform legacy. Yet somehow the economic downfall that’s soon to come (Our AAA credit rating took a hit) will most certainly be blamed on blacks, we were given an opportunity to vote in a black president, and this is what happens. Black people can’t make good decisions Blah, Blah, Blah. Even though the majority, whites  have voted against their own best interest for the past 30 years because of Will Horton type boogie man were running loose on the streets and black welfare queens were spending tax payer money to buy big houses and fancy cars.

  • Anonymous

    First, many said he was all talk, just an empty suit: full of soaring speeches signifying nothing. At inauguration, he was really sober–even grim–letting everyone know that it was going to be really rough ahead. He obviously wasn’t lying. He got faced with unbelievable resistance (someone on twitter just said something to the effect that if he asked people to breathe, the GOP would pass out in order to make him wrong), and yet still got stuff done that people in his party have been trying to do for a very long time. And now he’s not making enough soaring speeches? There’s also quite a bit ahistoricism in all the appeals to MLK and FDR that so many of these things have…that’s my start. Everyone pile on.

    • Robin Margolis

      Ahistoricism, certainly. I often say Obama is a reflection of what our times have become and a perfect way to understand why so many youth are checked out of the national scene (though we aren’t as checked out locally or even as voters as we get painted as being). Obama is the closest thing we have to a national figure who can inspire new ways of thinking, whereas past generations had an embarassment of riches of national figures who believed what they said and represented deeply thought through and evolving philosophies (take your pick from JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, John Lennon, Harry Belafonte)….

      Now we are reduced to a figure like Obama who is all surface, at least in practice, even if he could be much more in a different time and place. He clearly doesn’t believe deeply in much of the actions he’s forced to take and stances he believes necessary to move things forward in small ways or to tread water.  That said, Obama is not rising above his era or driving the era into the future. The point about forcing the arc of justice rather than trying to ride it out doesnt feel so far off.

      Still, is our test of whether Obama is a good president as ridiculous as to expect him to be on the level of arguably the greatest president we’ve ever had and one of more important civil rights leaders the world has seen?  Not fair in my book, plus the reality is we are still stuck on the path set by Reagan and whether or not Obama says he hates the man as a despicable monster or worships him as a saint, that will not change things.

      Ultimately, I think we voted in a Harvard Prof more than anything else and that sucks.

  • Shirley Grigsby

    I believe this OP-ED is correct in its analysis of President Obama’s governing style.  One does not give in to BULLIES, by the President’s refusal to protect the people who donated money, canvassed and eventually voted for him is nothing both willful betrayal. 

  • nikki

    i agree. i think President Obama was dealt an enormous set of problems but there have been several key issues where he should have taken charge of the message and drawn a hardline. ask me what the President’s stances were in ’08, i could list them. ask me now and i couldn’t pinpoint a clear position. he’s let conservatives dominate the media with their backward beliefs and then concedes during negotiations. i’m all for good comprise but all these “deals” are win-lose situations.i really hope he gets his mojo back. it’s sad to a President fail to reach his potential because of lack of conviction and willingness to fight.

    • Someguy

      I am shocked at how no one has mentioned the fact that maybe Obama is simply another puppet.
      Let’s look at the facts:
      – didn’t close gitmo
      – didn’t restore habeus corpus and the due process of law
      – didn’t cancel the patriot act
      – filled his cabinet with ex-lobbyists and insiders
      – ended no wars
      – started a new one in Libya without even congressional approval
      – won’t let anyone see Bradley manning
      – the list goes on and on
      – he could have gotten a clean debt ceiling raise but HE put those cuts on the table
      – he is heavily supported by the insurance companies and big corporations who help write the laws

      What exactly will it take before people stop making excuses for him.
      He’s not your friend. He’s a total and complete stranger who is throwing poor people in the street while protecting the rights of the rich. Yet everywhere people male excuses for him like he’s a little kid getting picked on at school.
      You are more important than obama’s feelings. If he were white there would be revolution inthe streets but he’s black so everyone makes excuses and blames repubs and tea partners.
      Did it ever occur to you that republicans are paid to win and democrats are paid to lose?

      I’m not saying there isn’t opposition, but look at what he’s done on his own.
      I black and this sing racism, but I’m sick of seeing people on food stamps while people feel sorry for a rich stranger who gets on tv and pretends to give a damn while actively hurting the poor. Cutting ‘entitlements’ is a TAX on the poor. Military spending accelerates while children are homeless and banks are bulldozing empty homes to shave their balance sheets.

      Seriously grow the fuck up.
      It’s you or him.
      Dont choose him.

      • Someguy

        Ugh…I wrote that on my iPhone.
        Please ignore the grammatical errors.