Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Obama's Passion

If you haven't already, I'm sure you're going to be hearing about Drew Westen's op-ed in the NYT titled What Happened to Obama's Passion?

Mr. Westen is a professor of psychology and does a pretty amateurish job of creating a list of so-called symptoms that he makes up out of whole cloth and then proceeds to diagnose with this caveat he should have paid attention to and kept his mouth shut.

As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.

So he won't diagnose from a distance, but he sure puts out a lot of bunk when it comes to his hypotheses. Perhaps lost in the shuffle of all of them is one where he alludes negatively to something that I see at the heart of Obama's passion:

When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.

Nope, President Obama is not interested in identifying and blaming villains...never has been. Listening to him over an extended period of time has told me that he sees that as a trap to reinforce the status quo. That's because we get ourselves locked into back and forth finger-pointing that leads to an ever-widening polarization in this country. And he's decided that that's our biggest obstacle to sustained progress.

Here's how he talked about that in his speech about race.

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

And here's how he talked about it at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

“Unity is the great need of the hour” is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.

What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle, the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.

And no one can claim that this message hasn't been consistent from the beginning. After all, here are the famous lines that introduced Barack Obama to the nation.

You want to see passion from President Obama? That's where you'll find it!

And if you think that's naive or crazy, just listen to someone who knows a thing or two about what's possible in this country.

Sumthin crazy may happen in this country...oh lawwwd!


  1. Stellar, Ms Smarty! Stellar! Beating back degreed fools with the commonsense of love. Don't mean to be mushy because to me love is sweet reason. I may not be able to do it as I'd like, but I know it when I see it.

  2. Love as sweet there's a concept I can embrace. :-)

  3. I read Westen's piece in the NYT this morning. I've also read his book. He has had a few good things to say in the past about neuroscience and politics, but whenever he tries his hand at writing the speeches he thinks candidates ought to give, they sound weak to me.

    In his piece this morning, Westen's version of what he thinks Obama should have said in his Inaugural Address I thought was pathetic. Had he given that speech, which was all about blaming Wall Street and conservatives for the the financial crisis, he would have been dismissed as divisive. And that speech would have been directly contrary to the message of hope and reconciliation and unity, which is the message that got Obama elected.

    This is all about how Obama hasn't done enough to stir the passions of partisans on the left. But he didn't need to do that to get his program through Congress. What he needed to do, and tried very hard to do, was to reach out to moderates and conservatives for some support. So I guess Westen's argument is that since the conservatives did not respond very favorably to those overtures, Obama should have treated them as the enemy from the beginning. It is really hard for me to see how that strategy would have been more effective--except perhaps in stirring up the passions of his base--or how it would have been consistent with the message of his campaign. My guess is that all the partisanship and divisiveness we are seeing now would be nothing compared to what would have happened if Obama had tried Westen's approach.

  4. Joe,

    This is something I've always wondered about those who see the situation as Westen does...

    If they think the the GOP is so intransigent, do they REALLY believe that Obama being more harsh in his rhetoric would lead to their surrender or in any way change the outcome?

    On the other hand, I think Westen hasn't been listening closely enough or has forgotten a lot of what Obama has said. Remember his speech about the deficit? Rep. Paul Ryan got called out BIG time - and he was pissed!

    Sometimes I think what these folks want is not a challenge to the Republicans, but the kind of red meat that - as you point out - does nothing but satisfy the "base" and creates further polarization.