Obama’s narrative failing

Among liberals and Democratic-leaning voters, these have been dark days. The sense that their party — and their president — got played big time in the recent debt ceiling showdown has prompted much spleen venting and ruminating over what’s gone wrong with Barack Obama.

That meant Drew Westen’s essay, “What Happened to Obama,” in yesterday’s New York Times was destined to become a must-read, for it claims to offer an overarching explanation not only for the president’s supposed cave-in during the debt debate but for his entire wobbly presidency. The problem, the Emory University psychology professor tells us, is that Obama, though a gifted orator, is a lousy story teller, and story telling is the means by which great leaders lead and rally people to their cause:

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels, and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable.

Westen says, starting with Obama’s inaugural address, that the president needed to tell a compelling story of how unrestrained market capitalism, led by George W. Bush and his Wall Street cronies, had wrecked the economy, point out that there were real villains at fault, and point the way toward the reassertion of reasonable regulation and oversight that would be needed to right the economic ship.  “But there was no story — and there has been none since,” writes Westen.

It’s an interesting, if at times ponderously long, read, and it’s easy to nod your head as you think about Obama’s seeming preference for conciliation over confrontation. Joe Klein says “a lot of us have been picking around the edges of the problem of Obama’s curiously unsatisfying presidency but Westen puts it all into context.”

But there has been plenty of blogosphere blowback. George Washington University’s John Sides says the problem starts with Westen’s premise that “presidential power is essentially rhetorical.”  Sides says “there is precious little evidence that presidents accomplish much by rhetoric—least of all large shifts in public opinion. In fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens?  It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.”

Meanwhile, this 2007 blog post by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan might be considered a sort of “buyer beware” warning to those drawn to the idea that Westen’s grand theory of the Obama universe explains it all. 

                                                                                                                                                      –MICHAEL JONAS 


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As Attorney General Martha Coakley ramps up an investigation into an online mortgage clearinghouse, county registers of deeds worry about becoming stretched thin.

The Globe reports that investigators from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office will be at the Lottery’s Braintree headquarters today, and they aren’t coming to buy scratch tickets.


The state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission awards five more liquor licenses to Lawrence, which has trouble controlling the ones it already has, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

A Plymouth company that has developed an iris and face recognition program for law enforcement is now arming police with smartphones to take pictures while on the road of a suspect’s face and eyes to check for outstanding warrants and immigration status.

New Bedford officials are soliciting designs for 10 inlays planned for the city’s sidewalks to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A Taunton lawyer has filed a $100,000 claim against the city for actions by a pair of EMTs just a week after sending the city a $2 million demand in a separate case involving the same emergency workers.

The Berkshire Eagle wants lawmakers to move to protect microbreweries.


On Meet The Press, Sen. John Kerry calls S&P’s reduction in the country’s bond rating “the Tea Party downgrade,” a label being used by some in the Obama administration and raising the ire of the National Review. S&P takes flak for the downgrade, and fired right back. A Boston University economist tells the Herald that the country’s financial straits put the US closer to a CCC junk bond rating than the AAA rating S&P just revoked. The New York Times says the ratings agency’s move should add urgency to the work of a congressional deficit-reduction panel.

Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation talks with Jon Keller about the impact on the state of the debt ceiling deal and the ongoing federal budget battles. As economists openly speculate about a second recession, the Federal Reserve examines the rabbits lingering in its hat, but none of its remaining options for propping up the economy look appealing.

The Washington Post takes an in-depth look at the origins of the debt showdown.


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As he gears up for a 2012 reelection fight, Sen. Scott Brown is busy raising money, with more than half of it coming from outside Massachusetts, the Lowell Sun (via AP) reports.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a national GOP dreamboat-in-waiting, bats down criticisms of his recent appointment of a Muslim lawyer to the state bench, calling questions about Shariah law “crap,” and adding, “I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.” So, yeah, he’s staying in Jersey for a while.


Nearly 45,000 workers at Verizon go on strike over concessions sought by the company, the Lowell Sun (via AP) reports.  The Globe account is here.

AIG prepares to sue Bank of America over soured mortgage bonds.

The Globe editorial page laments the imminent shuttering of the Borders at School and Washington streets in Boston. It says the Boston Redevelopment Authority should maintain the literary tradition that has characterized that patch of downtown Boston — but doesn’t offer a clue as to how the city might do this.


Girls win at the Google Science Fair, a foreshadowing of what’s to come? WBUR’s Here & Now has the story.

Students owe $13,000 in unpaid lunch bills in Ipswich, the Salem News reports.

The Springfield Republican says if Superintendent of Schools Alan Ingram isn’t going to buy a house in the city, he should give his housing bonus back.


Chronic Lyme disease is a growing problem, WBUR reports.


The IRS says air travelers can forget about a refund on federal ticket taxes that went uncollected during the partial FAA shutdown.

The MBTA has run out of cash to fund legal settlements.


Fairhaven officials have rejected two digester tanks because of failed leakage tests and ordered the contractor to cease working on the town’s highly touted waste-to-energy project.

Are there too many farmers markets in the Bay State? If you are a farmer trying to make a buck in these areas, the answer is yes.


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In the last of a series of reports on the 50th birthday of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Cape Cod Times concludes that what the seashore looks like in 100 years will depend on the levels of funding and public support.

The Cape Cod Times wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to think twice about renewing Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station’s license.; The paper also gives kudos to the US Environmental Protection Agency for moving to increase the waste discharge zone from Chatham to Provincetown.


Frank Rich savages the Murdoch clan.