Monday, August 8, 2011


When a psychology professor criticizes the president, it is reasonable to expect that his criticism is going to reflect his area of expertise. Drew Westen's op-ed piece in the New York Times this weekend purports to examine the weaknesses in the stories that are being told by this administration, from the point of view of psychological effectiveness. But Westen cites no empirical evidence that a different narrative would have produced better results. Instead, he just writes the Inaugural Address that he personally wishes the president had given--one that would have come out swinging against Wall Street bankers and conservative politicians whom he blames for the financial crisis of 2008. Certainly that kind of aggressive message might have pleased a good portion of the crowd, but it would have alienated the business community and a very large conservative sector of the population. And that message would have been totally inconsistent with the whole theme of hope and reconciliation and post-partisanship that got Obama elected in the first place.

Westen makes a number of claims that the administration failed to explain its economic policies and health care policies and other initiatives. Over on Xpostfactoid, these claims that President Obama failed to explain these policies are decisively refuted one by one. What becomes clear from Westen's tirade is that instead of any kind of scientific critique of the administration's messaging, all he is doing is making a critique of policy, especially what Westen calls Obama's "truly decisive move," his handling of the economic stimulus in 2009. Once he moves into politics, Westen demonstrates that he has no special expertise at all.

I and others get tired of pointing this out, but the stimulus bill needed three Republican votes in the Senate to pass. And that's all it got. It also needed the support of every single Democrat in the Senate, some of whom were quite leery of enacting the largest deficit spending measure in history. Sure a lot of economists thought the stimulus should have been twice as big, and should not have relied so heavily on tax cuts. But there was absolutely no way that a bill in excess of a trillion dollars could even be seriously proposed. The votes were not there. It didn't matter what kind of speech you could make in support of such a stimulus bill. The votes in the Senate were not there. There is just no way you can make a credible showing, as a matter of dealing with the political reality of the United States Senate, that anybody could have passed a larger stimulus bill in 2009 than the one the administration got passed. In fact, getting a bill of that magnitude through the Senate only a few weeks into the new president's term was a major accomplishment. So I guess it is legitimate to criticize the president for his unwillingness to fight battles that he is not likely to win. In my view, that is not even a criticism, however. Another legitimate criticism one could make about the stimulus act in particular is that maybe the administration should have acknowledged from the outset that $800 billion in stimulus was not going to be adequate to restore economic growth as quickly as most people would have liked. What kind of message would that have sent when your goal is to restore economic confidence?

(Jonathan Chait has another good critique of the Westen piece in The New Republic.  See also Smartypants.)

(illustration from Science Report)

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