Sunday, August 7, 2011

Drew Weston on Obama

Drew Weston's lead article in the NYT today really hits on some important points in general and about Obama in particular:

1. The importance of narrative (the fancy word for story). As a trial lawyer, this important mode--the most important mode of conveying information--has been drilled into my head by communications experts and fellow trial lawyers. Weston makes the point:

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. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”

Obama was elected--in very large measure--on his story: the story of a bi-racial kid raised by a single mother in exotic locales, but he maintains close contact with his Midwestern grandparents,and those he learns to bridge multiple worlds and makes good, moving away from divides of race, etc. A great story. But what is his story now?

2. Weston contrasts Obama with the two Roosevelts, and Obama lacks in comparison. Both were fighters, both willing to take on "the bad guys". Now really, there are bad guys (not many, but some), and there are always those (virtually all of us) who will not give up the advantages and privileges that we have (a/k/a greed). If you want to take something away from say, Wall Street, or the rich, or seniors, or whomever, you're going to get a fight. You must fight. Fight and then negotiate. I do it every day. Obama only seems to want to negotiate. Weston contrasts Obama's lack of a fighting story with the attitude exhibited by the "Happy Warrior":

In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he [FDR] thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

3. Weston notes that Obama took many of his bearings from the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., surely a strong and relevant choice, but as Weston notes, King, too, fought--in the streets as well as with his moving oratory--for the cause that he championed. Obama seems to lack a cause and the will to champion it. Weston writes:

Those [Roosevelts'] were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

4. Weston goes on to argue that mere "centrist" positions are not enough, and that Obama may be bewitched by this siren song that seems to pull many Democrats, and then he goes on the raise potentially more fundamental flaws that Obama may suffer:

A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

This is a troubling perspective. For all his gifts, he was (and largely is) a young man. He has not led a fight like this before. As a fellow lawyer, I have to note that he was a law professor (obviously very capable), but never (I think) a practicing lawyer, never an advocate. Lawyers who represent clients in court have to deal with real issues, take stands, make arguments--fight (compete) within the rules of the game. Often no one is happier to settle a case than me, as I know the risks of failure, but as I never tire of telling clients, the best settlement comes from the best trial preparation. You need to let the other side know that you'll fight and risk loss than settle cheap. (Sometimes you settle cheap if you have no case, but that's a different story.)

5. Having said all this, and expressed my reservations, I will of course support Obama's reelection. At his worst he's better than anyone that the Republicans will nominate. The Republican party is reverting to it's no-nothing roots of the 1840's. It is not the party of Lincoln, TR, Ike, or even Reagan. But to make his reelection count, Obama must stand up and push back.