Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Drew Westen questioning the rhetorical effectiveness of the Obama administration. The piece had some notable flaws, which I’ve discussed on my own blog, but what I find even more interesting is the hysterical overreaction it spawned in The New Republic. Here are some of columnist Jonathan Chait’s most inflammatory statements:
Westen is a figure, like George Lakoff, who arose during the darkest moments of the Bush years to sell liberals on an irresistible delusion. The delusion rests on the assumption that the timidity of their leaders is the only thing preventing their side from enjoying total victory.
I don’t know enough about Westen to defend him, but I know that Chait is badly mischaracterizing Lakoff. George Lakoff is a proponent of rhetorical framing, which in simplest terms is an effort to change the public’s perception of an issue by changing the way you talk about it. Republicans are masters of rhetorical framing. Take, for example, the estate tax, which Republicans have slyly relabeled the “death tax.” Lakoff is trying to educate liberals about how effective conservatives have been for decades in the use of language and counsels Democrats to do the same. Timidity has nothing to do with it.
Then Chait says:
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.
While I agree with Chait that Westen succumbs to a silly, romantic notion of the hero President and his faithful servant speechwriter, Chait is the one using a weapon of mass destruction to mock rhetoricians when a pea shooter might have been more effective. The best parts of Westen’s op ed are those that point out what a muddle the Obama Administration has become in communications terms and how that muddle has allowed Americans to fill in the blanks and define him as they will, a socialist to some, a conservative to some on the Left.
The core Westen argument, as I read it, is that it’s difficult for Americans to understand what this administration stands for or what path it wants to take going forward. It’s an administration that argues for weeks for a balanced approach to cutting the deficit, but then signs an agreement with only spending cuts. It’s a leader who speaks forcefully for universal health care, then gives us a big, confusing health care law that doesn’t achieve it. It’s an economic team that comes out strong for a stimulus package, without really explaining why or how it will work, then grows quiet on the subject even as the Treasury Secretary refuses to rule out a double dip recession.
These are all rhetorical failings — and the thread that ties them together is the failure to link rhetoric with action. Westen may have overstated the importance of rhetoric in and of itself, but to argue that all politics is what happens in the Congressional cloak rooms is an even more dangerous simplification of our current situation.
The proof for this comes in Chait’s own indictment of Westen. He takes on Westen’s example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency:
Did Roosevelt promise to support expansionary fiscal policy to combat the depression? Well, yes, but only after initially promising to cut the deficit. Westen strongly implies that Roosevelt persuaded Americans to understand the efficacy of government spending in order to combat mass unemployment. In fact, he utterly failed to convince Americans to support fiscal stimulus.
Yes Mr. Chait, but more importantly, FDR set the tone for his shifts in policy and emphasis by telling the American people that his administration would be about “bold persistent experimentation.” In doing so, Roosevelt used rhetoric to give himself political cover, to signal to Americans that some of the things he’s going to do might be risky and unpopular, but given the gravity of the circumstances, we’d be foolish not to try them.
This, I believe, is where the Obama Administration has fallen short. Somewhere along the line, the Obama Administration forgot to warn the American people that some of the things they’ll have to try might be too liberal for some’s taste, while other actions might be too conservative. Ideology can be a pair of cement shoes when you’re facing new problems and need brand new solutions.
The President still has an opportunity to put his Presidency into this context. And contrary to what economic determinist Jonathan Chait thinks, I believe framing his first term this way could help him win a second.
The former chief speechwriter for Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dan Conley is a Chicago-based professional speechwriter and frequent op-ed contributor to major national publications.