Westen, a psychology professor, claims Obama failed in his job as America’s collective storyteller, a role in which former Pres. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded so admirably during the Great Depression.
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.
He laments what Obama did not say at his inauguration and imagines how he could have explained our nation’s economic meltdown, identified the causes and the responsible parties, and sketched out a broad strategy to use the full resources the U.S. government to solve the crisis.
“But there was no story — and there has been none since,” wrote Westen.
No counter-narrative, no alternative vision, and, even worse, Obama almost immediately after his inauguration began appointing economic advisors, e.g. Geithner, Paulson, and Summers, who championed the very policies that produced the crisis, which was akin to asking the foxes to safeguard the same henhouse they have been plundering for years.
The primary problem with Westen’s argument is that in a modern democracy an elected president should not be a substitute father or parental figure, which is a leadership archetype more suited for a dictatorship or a monarchy. The United States is a nation, not a family, and in a democracy we elect a president as part of a process of articulating a national political vision. I agree that a critical responsibility of an elected president is to help fashion a narrative that clarifies and sustain a political vision. However, if Obama cannot or will not lead, then it is the responsibility of the American people to write the story for him and compel him to speak it.
FDR did not propose vast political changes, nor become a leader, in a vacuum. He became a leader because he listened to the voices from above and below and accepted that he needed to make choices that were guaranteed to infuriate many Americans. FDR may have had a measure of courage that Obama lacks, but he was compelled to act by organized Americans.
Likening a president to a parent diminishes the responsibilities of the public to guarantee a functioning democracy. The administration of Pres. George W. Bush, despite what a lot of liberals believe, did not run roughshod over the Constitution without a lot of help from Democrats, the news media, and the American public. The political landscape is little different today. The key decisions in our political economy are being made by unelected combines of capital that answer only to themselves and fund the political campaigns of our “elected representatives,” including the president. Much of the American public is still passive and the mainstream news media too often reports as truth the self-serving claims of the politicians and patricians.
Democracy cannot be distilled into exercising a vote once every four years. The response to Obama’s failures is not to elect a better president, but to build a better democracy, which requires we organize in our own self-interests as workers, families, retirees, and students. The solution to a faltering democracy is greater democracy.