Obama's Words Aren't Silver Bullets, Progressives Tell Their Own

President Obama seen in silhouette inside Marine One helicopter on the White House South Lawn, Aug. 9, 2011. i

President Obama seen in silhouette inside Marine One helicopter on the White House South Lawn, Aug. 9, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama seen in silhouette inside Marine One helicopter on the White House South Lawn, Aug. 9, 2011.

President Obama seen in silhouette inside Marine One helicopter on the White House South Lawn, Aug. 9, 2011.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It's been interesting to follow the criticism of their own recently by some progressives who have faulted President Obama for not successfully deploying words to rhetorically pummel his political opponents into submission.

Of course, even Abraham Lincoln, the greatest wordsmith ever to occupy the White House, couldn't accomplish this feat. The swords of the Union Army were ultimately mightier in defeating the Confederacy than Lincoln's pen.

And it took Union military victories to keep Northerners from abandoning Lincoln at various point of the Civil War. Words alone weren't enough to keep many Northerners from, at times, of growing weary of even Lincoln.

So the idea that Obama, who is no Lincoln, and the nation would be doing better if only the president could somehow divine the right combination of words, while apparently seductive for many people, is also a stretch.

Which, again, some progressives are pointing out to those who've faulted the president on his alleged failure to get the nation through his rhetoric to see the light.

Jonathan Chait, writing for The New Republic, has a critique of one notable example of the Obama's-rhetoric-is-the-problem school, a New York Times op-ed piece by Drew Westen, an Emory University psychology professor.

In a piece that has gotten much attention, Westen wrote that from his inauguration on, Obama has failed to give Americans a compelling narrative of what went wrong and what he and they can do about it:

... Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story...

To which Chait wrote:

Westen's op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen's telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama's failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.

Chait's critique is echoed by a memo by James Vega for the Democratic Strategy Institute. Vega criticizes those progressives who accuse the president of not effectively exploiting the messaging possibilities that come with being president.

The tremendous appeal of the general "If Obama had just used the bully pulpit he could have transformed the national debate about X" notion is rooted in the fact that it provides a one sentence, all-purpose, completely evidence-free—and therefore entirely irrefutable— argument against any aspect of Obama's political strategy and tactics that one desires. It is an emotional argument based on feeling and not a logical argument based on evidence.

Let's be clear: presidential rhetoric does indeed have a specific, identifiable degree of influence on public opinion. In recent months there have been two relatively clear examples of this—Obama's speech criticizing Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal and his call for public pressure on Congress in support of a compromise on the debt ceiling. In the first case Obama's remarks clearly served as a focal point that helped crystallized public opposition to the Ryan plan and his call for pressure on Congress produced a wave of phone calls that overloaded the congressional switchboard.

But these same two examples also suggest the very clear limitations that exist on the influence of presidential rhetoric...

On the Poynter Institute's website, Latoya Peterson, like Chait, writes that Westen neglects many of the complexities that provide an important context to the problems Obama is dealing with, including race:

But ultimately, I disagree with the idea that a strong narrative will release the nation from political gridlock.

Even if Obama could have crafted a "simple narrative," it's unlikely he could ensure that it would become the dominant one that most Americans accepted and believed.

Truly, the greater narrative failure is the media's, for providing coverage that lacks the necessary context and perspectives to shed light on the difficulties that Obama has faced as president — difficulties that are unique to his experience as a black president leading a country that is hardly "postracial."

By mentioning race, Peterson enters an area that doesn't get as much attention from commentators as you might think it would.

As the first black in the White House, it's difficult to believe his race plays no role in how his presidency is perceived.

But that's a huge topic (and minefield) in its own right and beyond the limited intent of this post which is merely to point out how some in the president's base are defending Obama from what they view as the unrealistic expectations of others in his base.



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