Apr 14th 2009

Why the Democrats Are Losing Ground As Obama Is Gaining It

by Drew Westen

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

While the President is off being the leader of the free world and trying to restore prosperity at home, someone needs to manage the blind trust of the Democratic Party before its assets dwindle like shares of Citigroup. President Obama's approval ratings have continued to break records, and with good reason. In less than 3 months, he has already proven himself remarkably capable as a leader, in getting a stimulus package passed (while learning some hard lessons about splitting the difference in policy with the people who created the mess); steadfastly refusing to jettison health care, energy, and education reform from his budget in tough economic times; beginning to heal the deep wounds left by his predecessor in the U.S.'s relationship with the rest of the world through both his mastery of foreign affairs and his emotional intelligence as diplomat-in-chief; and even signaling his intention to take on comprehensive immigration reform. All of this has happened as Republicans have seemed increasingly impotent, ideologically inflexible, and oppositional, none of which endears them to anyone but the 30% who still think Bush was a great president (and apparently remain off their medication).

Yet at the same time, something else is happening under the radar: the fortunes of Democrats more generally are starting to wane. March was a good month for Barack Obama but a bad month for the Democratic Party. As the latest Rasmussen polls show, in March the percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats dropped by 2 percent--four times the rate of decline among Republicans (even as the Republicans were publicly flailing, producing numberless budgets, and unwittingly branding themselves as the party of old ideas and the party of "no"). More ominous, the margin of voters supporting a Democrat over a Republican in a generic ballot for Congress dropped to its lowest point since both the Iraq War and the economy had clearly gone south by 2006: one percent (40 vs. 39%).

So how could it be that President Obama's standing in the polls is holding steady or improving while Democrats' standing in the polls is falling? And does it matter, so long as he is able to get his agenda passed through a heavily Democratic House and Senate?

Let's start with the second question first. It does matter. The President's ability to stay on the path he has charted requires not only Democrats holding or increasing their majorities in 2010 but on their holding onto public support for sweeping change. It also requires moderate Democrats and those from conservative states and districts to feel comfortable voting for new spending, and likely a second stimulus package, knowing that they will be attacked in the next election with the familiar refrains of big-government tax-and-spend liberals (if not socialists).

And as for the first question, the paradoxical popularity of the new President while the fortunes of his party are waning, not only makes sense but is predictable from an understanding of the psychology of public opinion and "branding." Any marketing executive will tell you that a good product is certainly a big help for sales, particularly if the competition is producing lemons. That's the situation we have now in American politics, where the Democrats are producing solutions where Republicans manufactured problems, and where the Republicans are now trying to re-sell "pre-owned" ideological vehicles that have a bad habit of running into ditches.

But the best products fail without good branding. In politics, you don't win on ideas alone. Comprehensive energy reform was a no-brainer after OPEC began embargoing oil 35 years ago, but the percent of our energy we are importing from overseas has only skyrocketed since then, and Americans were buying Hummers until gas hit $4.00 a gallon. Health care reform made good sense in 1993, but last I looked, it hasn't happened. Successful branding requires two things: creating positive associations to your own brand, and differentiating it from competing brands. In politics, that means offering voters a clear, memorable, emotionally compelling narrative about your party's core principles, while presenting them with an equally clear, memorable, and evocative story about the other party that would not make anyone want to be associated with it. If there were ever a time Democrats could offer both stories, this is it.

But the failure of Democrats to brand themselves has been a perennial problem since the breakdown of the New Deal coalition in the 1970s, and it remains a major problem today, leaving Republicans the opportunity, once they get their ideological chops back, to start branding both parties again, as they have for the better part of thirty years. Democrats stand for spending our way out of a looming Depression--a sound policy when no one else has the money or chutzpa to spend or invest--but how does that differ from the fiscal irresponsibility with which Ronald Reagan branded the party of "tax and spend" 30 years ago? Democrats stand for shifting to clean, safe 21st century sources of energy rather than relying on the fossil fuels of the last two centuries, but then why is the Secretary of the Interior waxing poetic about expanded offshore drilling?

It's hard for people to hear your message when you aren't speaking. I suspect few Americans even know that Governor Tim Kaine is the new DNC chair, while his RNC counterpart, Michael Steele, is at least busy publicly humiliating himself. And the President has inadvertently chosen to keep his popularity to himself. Whereas Bill Clinton rebranded himself--and by extension, his party--as a "different kind of Democrat" than the voters had repeatedly rejected in national elections, President Obama has branded himself as above partisanship--as the Un-Democrat. That may be a laudable goal--the same laudable goal, in fact, that the Founders had in mind for the Presidency--until President Washington, who won the office by universal acclamation, chose to step down, at which point partisan politics erupted, and we have been largely a two-party nation ever since.

Perhaps President Obama will succeed where Adams and Jefferson could not, and America will become not only a post-racial society but a post-partisan one. But if he does not succeed in turning a broken economy around substantially by the summer of 2010 and reminding the American people on a regular basis (repetition is essential psychologically, neurologically, and empirically to branding) that he and his fellow Democrats are trying to pull the nation out of the ditch the Republicans left us in by the side of the road, his administration will gradually become associated in voters' minds with the economic crisis he inherited, and he will find himself working with a Congress far less friendly to progressive reforms in two years.

Under similar circumstances, FDR trumpeted the failures of the Republican leadership and ideology that created the Great Depression while still managing to unite a terrified nation around not only his own charismatic presence but around New Deal reforms--reforms he could never have enacted if he had not contrasted the failed ideology that had led the nation over the economic cliff with the radically different solutions he and his party were offering. Roosevelt's consistent branding of the Republicans as inflexible ideologues at the same time as he showed what progressive, pragmatic action and Democratic leadership could offer led to a political realignment that lasted 40 years.

That is not President Obama's style. He prefers to say that mistakes "were made" (but not by whom). He is comfortable attacking "greed" as long as he doesn't have to attribute it to anyone in particular. (He did fire one man in Detroit for the failings of the American auto industry, but he retained all the corrupt, greedy, and incompetent executives on Wall Street who made it impossible for anyone to get a loan to buy a car.)

The hope, of course, is that voters will see improvements in their lives and connect them to the party in power even if it doesn't make terribly strenuous efforts to take credit for those improvements. And perhaps that will translate to a shift in partisan affiliation that will sustain the President's agenda long enough for it to work or even beyond. But it is a risky strategy to refuse to brand the other side for the problems they created and to refuse to brand your own side for the solutions you offer and the principles that underlie those solutions. The President often speaks of principles, and in so doing has taken Democratic rhetoric to precisely where it needs to be, in the realm of values (as in his stirring lines about parents turning off the television set and reading to their kids when talking about education reform). But the average American associates those principles with Obama, not with the Democratic Party, because Democrats outside the Oval Office remain long on policies and short on clearly, colloquially stated principles.

It may well be that this President is temperamentally unwilling, unable, or uninterested in speaking unpleasant truths about people who did unpleasant things to a lot of people. And it may be that that's a good thing. Our politics have certainly been unpleasant for a long time, and he's trying to change that.

But the reality is that millions of Americans are out of work, and most hard working Americans have lost nearly half of their wealth, and many their homes, because of the way George W. Bush and the radical Republican ideologues who enabled him ran the government--and ran it into the ground. The reality is that we had a surplus when Bill Clinton left office, and the only reason President Obama inherited a $1.2 trillion deficit that now constrains him is that George W. Bush and the radical Republicans believed in handing out suitcases full of cash to their wealthy friends with no strings attached and no transparency. Personally, I think that bears saying, and I think it particularly bears saying every time those same Republicans preach fiscal discipline, heap scorn on government "bailouts" they both necessitated and engineered, or offer their quasi-religious answer of "the free market" to every problem the market has created or failed to solve, from the crisis in the housing industry and the lack of regulations on Wall Street that took down our economy (and the world economy along with it) to the fact that most working Americans are now afraid of changing jobs for fear of losing their health insurance. Republican politicians would certainly be a little less quick to step up to the microphone if they knew that every time they talked about fiscal discipline, a Democrat would be there to remind them that they were the ones who went on a 6-year spending spree with our children's money and then handed the better part of a trillion dollars out to Wall Street bankers and speculators, sacrificing the American taxpayer at the altar of their free-market extremism.

It may be that the President is not the right messenger for this message (although FDR had no trouble being both an inspirational and transformational leader while also leading his party, and the Republicans became the "Party of Lincoln" after the gangly leader from Illinois not only said a few choice things about those who wanted to hang onto their slaves but actually sent an army after them). And it could be that he is right to stand above the fray. It could also be that House and Senate Democrats need to be more forceful with the media about covering their statements, since their leadership has been less reluctant to talk in partisan tones.

But someone needs to be in the fray other than the GOP. The worst thing to be in politics is silent, because it allows the other side to shape public sentiment uncontested. It wouldn't hurt to have a Southern voice like Tim Kaine's behind a megaphone with a "D" written on it. But whether it's Kaine or someone else with credibility and charisma, somebody needs to start saying what Democrats and Republicans stand for other than Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Richard Shelby. That's a lesson we should have learned a long time ago.

In politics, there is nothing so deadly as silence.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."


Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "....young voters did reach the polls they voted overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates across the country. According to reports, 63% of 18- to 29- year olds voted Democrat and 35% voted Republican in the House of Representatives elections. Voters between 30 and 44 split their vote between the two parties, while older voters tended to vote Republican."
Nov 24th 2022
Nouriel Roubini: "Central banks are in both a stagflation trap and a debt trap. Amid negative aggregate supply shocks that reduce growth and increase inflation, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they increase interest rates enough to bring inflation down to 2%, they will cause a severe economic hard landing. And if they don’t – attempting instead to protect growth and jobs – they will be left increasingly far behind the curve, leading to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations and a wage-price spiral. Very high debt ratios (both private and public) complicate the dilemma further. Raising interest rates enough to crush inflation causes not only an economic crash, but also a financial crash, with highly leveraged private and public debtors facing severe distress. The resulting financial turmoil that intensifies the recession, creating a vicious cycle of deepening recession and escalating financial pain and debt distress. In these circumstances, central banks will blink. They will wimp out in the fight against inflation, in an effort to avoid an economic and financial crash. But that will lead to a higher permanent inflation rate, while only postponing the arrival of stagflation and debt crises. In other words, central banks in the United States, Europe, and other advanced economies have only bad options."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West." ---- "....whatever the weaknesses of Western democracies, they still command a degree of soft power that their autocratic competitors could only dream of. Democracy remains popular around the world – among citizens of both democratic and nondemocratic countries. That is why modern dictators pretend to be democrats." ---- "....there is no shortage of criticism about how the US and Europe function. But that itself is a product of the press freedom and political opposition that one can find only in democracies. But actions speak louder than words: Immigrants from around the world are eager to come to Europe or America, whereas few are trying to get into Russia or China."
Nov 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "In conventional macroeconomics, an economy’s longer-term growth potential is determined by the sum of labor-force and productivity growth. If one of those factors slows, the other must accelerate. Otherwise, long-term growth suffers.  China is in serious trouble on both fronts. An unsustainable one-child family-planning policy –subsequently changed to a two- and now three-child policy – means that the working-age population is declining, and Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress suggested that already-strong productivity headwinds are likely to intensify. "
Nov 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "First and most obvious – it has happened before. And in an historical sense, it has happened relatively recently, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 rightly considered a seismic event in world politics. The rub is that nobody predicted the end of the USSR either. In fact, it was confidently assumed in the West that Mikhail Gorbachev would go on ruling the Soviet Union, until the hard-line coup that failed to topple him (but left him mortally wounded in a political sense) made that view obviously redundant." ---- "So is it speculative to talk about a future Russian collapse? Yes. Is there evidence it is imminent? No. But in many ways that’s the problem: when authoritarian regimes implode, they tend to do so very quickly, and with little warning."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: " But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he [XI left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China."
Oct 8th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Recent inflation news from the eurozone’s largest member, Germany, is particularly alarming. In August, producer prices – which measure what is happening at the preliminary stages of industrial production – were a whopping 46% higher than in the same month last year. Given the long-term correlation between the growth rate of producer and consumer prices, this suggests that the latter could soar to 14% in November. Price stability – which is supposed to be the ECB’s uncompromising goal, per the Maastricht Treaty – is no longer perceptible" ----- "Since the 2008 global economic crisis, the ECB has allowed the central-bank money supply to increase twice as fast, relative to economic output, as the US Federal Reserve has. Of that growth, 83% was the result of the ECB’s purchases of government bonds from eurozone countries. With those purchases – which totaled an estimated €4.4 trillion – the ECB pushed interest rates on government bonds to around zero. This spurred countries to disregard European debt rules and accumulate debt at a breakneck pace."
Oct 7th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While some Russians have opposed the attack on Ukraine from the outset and publicly protested against the mobilisation that has just been declared, others, on the far right, feel that Russia is holding back too much and are increasingly calling for total mobilisation, the carpet-bombing of Ukrainian cities, and even the use of nuclear weapons." ----- "Will the Kremlin be able to channel the growing warmongering zeal? In view of the intensity of the rhetoric of the various wings of the Russian far right, backed recently by several Putin allies including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it is doubtful: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, nationalist pressure is likely to become a serious and lasting threat to Russia’s internal stability."
Oct 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS "Ever since she became a prominent political figure 12 years ago, Truss has been a shapeshifter. She started as a Liberal Democrat before becoming a Conservative, and she voted to remain in the European Union before championing Brexit. As a minister, it is hard to think of anything she accomplished. She signed a few EU trade deals as Secretary of State for International Trade, but most of those were rollovers." --- "But if until recently it seemed that Truss was driven solely by political ambition, her government’s 'mini-budget' proposal sheds light on her deeper ideological affinities."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russia’s focus on Ukraine and Putin’s choice to frame this as a civilisational struggle with the west has created opportunities for China to enhance its influence elsewhere – at Russia’s expense."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: ”The Ukrainian army is making spectacular advances,” --- “…the European Union has fully mobilized to confront the energy crisis.” ---- “we are helping our partners in the Global South to handle the fallout from Russia’s brutal aggression and cynical weaponization of energy and food.” ---- “In short: the overall strategy is working. We must continue to support Ukraine, pressure Russia with sanctions, and help our global partners in a spirit of solidarity.”
Sep 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which ....... “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?”
Aug 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACTS: "As the revolutionary founder of a new Chinese state, Mao emphasized ideology over development. For Deng and his successors, it was the opposite: De-emphasis of ideology was viewed as necessary to boost economic growth through market-based 'reform and opening up.' Then came Xi. Initially, there was hope that his so-called 'Third Plenum Reforms' of 2013 would usher in a new era of strong economic performance. But the new ideological campaigns carried out under the general rubric of Xi Jinping Thought, including a regulatory clampdown on once-dynamic Internet platform companies and associated restrictions on online gaming, music, and private tutoring, as well as a zero-COVID policy that has led to never-ending lockdowns, have all but dashed those hopes." ----- "With the upcoming 20th Party Congress likely to usher in an unprecedented third five-year term for Xi, there is good reason to believe that China’s growth sacrifice has only just begun."
Aug 23rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "Less widely noted, however, is that the prices of many commodities fell this summer. The price of oil decreased by about 30% between early June and mid-August. The politically sensitive price of gasoline in the United States fell by 20% over the same period, from $5 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The overall index fell 12%." ---- "There are two macroeconomic reasons to think that commodity prices in general will fall further. The level of economic activity is a self-evidently important determinant of demand for commodities and therefore of their prices. Less obviously, the real interest rate is another key factor. And the current outlook for both global growth and real interest rates suggests a downward path for commodity prices."
Aug 22nd 2022
EXTRACT: "How Trump planned to use the classified documents remains a question that investigators presumably have made a high priority. Depending on the answer and the resulting charges, if any, one thing is certain: Trump will play hardball, including by amplifying his claims of victimhood at the hands of the fictional Deep State, and denying any wrongdoing in purloining the documents. His lies and hyperbole, however, don’t preclude seeking a plea deal. In his previous tangles with the law, such as his Trump University scam, he agreed to compensate the victims (in that case $25 million) after his prevarications were exhausted."
Aug 21st 2022
"On one side, there is the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, for whom all but the most partisan Tory would struggle to count many successes during her lengthy cabinet career." ---- "Rishi Sunak, whose proposed policies appear more attuned to the imperative of tackling inflation and the hardship it is causing. But on the big issues of the past few years, Sunak has been wrong. He backed Brexit from the beginning, denies the damage it is doing, and enthusiastically supported Johnson’s bid for the premiership." ---- " Which of these two can offer honesty to the British people, who deserve to be treated like grown-ups? To paraphrase the US Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson, the average man and woman are better than average."
Aug 10th 2022
EXTRACT: "Central banks are thus locked in a “debt trap”: any attempt to normalize monetary policy will cause debt-servicing burdens to spike, leading to massive insolvencies, cascading financial crises, and fallout in the real economy. ---- With governments unable to reduce high debts and deficits by spending less or raising revenues, those that can borrow in their own currency will increasingly resort to the “inflation tax”: relying on unexpected price growth to wipe out long-term nominal liabilities at fixed rates."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."