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Obama team fumbling the key messages

By Drew Westen, Special to CNN
  • Abraham Lincoln said it's crucial for a president to be able to mold public opinion
  • Drew Westen says Obama's administration hasn't sent clear, strong, useful messages
  • He says Napolitano's response to terror incident showed tone deafness
  • Westen: Obama lost control of health care debate for lack of a strong, consistent message

Editor's note: Drew Westen 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." He has been a consultant or adviser to several candidates, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies, and informally advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Hopefully the President is returning rested from the closest thing to a vacation a President can get, which is not much.

George W. Bush took vacations seriously (and often), even after the terrorist attack that defined his presidency. In that sense, there's something deeply ironic about Republicans attacking the vacationing Obama for failing to prevent a Nigerian from blowing up his underpants in mid-air.

There is, of course, plenty of blame to be shared between the two administrations, which have similarly handled both security (with a Swiss-cheese system that can't stop a man whose own father warned American officials in advance) and averted disasters (with measures designed to prevent the last attempt rather than future ones, e.g., making us all take off our shoes when the next bomber can hide the explosives in his undies; forbidding the use of laptops in the last hour of a flight when the next terrorist can simply detonate his explosive five minutes earlier).

But the response to the Undiebomber underscores a problem the current administration does not share with its predecessor, which not only "stayed on message" but largely controlled it for the first six years of Bush's presidency: the ability to communicate a clear vision to the American people.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano initially suggested, in a tone intended to reassure, that the failed terrorist attack proved the system works. A few days later, when that comment could no longer even pass through airport screening machines, the president reversed course, calling the event a systemic failure of catastrophic proportions.

Napolitano's gaffe (which, to be fair, she later sought to correct) was not an isolated incident. It is emblematic of a seat-of-the-pants approach to speaking with the American people about issues that really matter to them that is increasingly undermining the administration's credibility (and with it, its poll numbers).

Just two weeks ago, on the Sunday morning talk shows, one member of the White House economic team confidently asserted that the recession was over -- a statement that was tone deaf at best to a nation in which one in six people is out of work or has given up looking and one in five families is in danger of losing its home. An hour later, a second senior member of the White House economic team responded on a different show that the recession is definitely not over.

That two members of the president's inner circle had obviously not discussed a key question they both knew they would be asked speaks to the same problem as Napolitano's out-of-touch remark.

The White House seems unable to convey to an anxious and angry electorate that has just lived through one of the most unsettling decades in American history that their leaders understand what they are experiencing and have a clear, shared vision of how to restore stability. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't reassure a frightened nation that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself -- or maybe we do."

It is difficult to find an issue on which the White House has offered a coherent, compelling message. Consider the administration's stance on deficits, which will constrain every piece of legislation the president attempts to pass.

President Obama never made a concerted effort to explain to the American people, in plain language, the most basic lessons of modern economics as to why deficit spending is essential to breaking a downward spiral in which major banks fail, the stock market collapses, businesses lay off employees, people who've lost their jobs can't buy or pay their mortgages, more businesses collapse as consumer confidence and spending plummet, banks stop lending, and home foreclosures skyrocket, leading to further layoffs and decreased demand.

It is difficult to find an issue on which the White House has offered a coherent, compelling message.
--Drew Westen

When no one has the money to spend or invest, the only one left to do it is the federal government. Breaking that spiral (and beginning to reinvest in America) was the primary purpose of the "stimulus package"-- something the president should have repeated dozens of times.

Instead, the administration has been mixing messages -- often in the same sentence -- about the need for government spending and the importance of deficit reduction and making any new spending "deficit neutral." To the average American, it's difficult to see how those messages fit together, and with good reason: They don't.

The same has been true of the administration's message on health care reform. Conservatives had a simple, clear, compelling story to tell:

Democrats want a government takeover of our health care system, which will increase costs, raise taxes on the middle class, reduce the quality of care for Americans who have insurance, and put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor.

The White House never offered an equally compelling story, even though they could have:

Over 40 million Americans lack health insurance, and we're all one pre-existing condition, lost job, or catastrophic illness away from losing our life savings and our doctor. Why? Because insurance companies have doubled our premiums in the last eight years, refuse to cover people who are or have been ill ("pre-existing conditions"), and routinely cut off coverage to people when they get ill, even though they've been paying their premiums for years. The answer? Regulate insurance companies to make them treat people fairly, require them to compete with each other and with at least one plan they don't get to pick, and tax the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans who got hundreds of billions in tax cuts over the last decade so people who work for a living can take their kids to the doctor.

What would that story have offered? A description of the problem in terms everyone can relate to, an explanation of how it came about that people have seen with their own eyes, a clear plan for solving it that passes the "common sense" test, and an appeal to core American values like security, hard work, competition and fairness. I happen to know that message would have garnered 2 to 1 support for health care reform because I polled various versions of it during the election and have done so recently.

But what the public heard instead is how Nebraskans aren't going to have to pay for Medicaid like every other state because their senator negotiated a special deal. They also heard how the president and senate would like to cut hundreds of billions in Medicare spending for seniors and to tax companies that offer working and middle class people good health insurance plans so they'll drop those plans in favor of lower-quality ones.

Both of those happen to be true, and neither would have been necessary if the White House had told a coherent story that just made sense to the average American in the first place.

President Obama has accomplished much in his first year in office, but paradoxically, the man who ran on hope has governed without it. He has listened too often to advisers who have counseled that the possible is impossible and that the path to success is the path of least resistance, making deals with the same special interests who have stolen the jobs, homes and hope of working Americans, and whose fingerprints are all over every major piece of legislation on the horizon -- or not on the horizon.

As the president moves into his second year, it is time for a course correction. As one of the most effective communicators in modern American history, he should heed the wise counsel of the president he most admires, Abraham Lincoln: "...public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible."

It is time this president makes statutes and decisions possible, not by compromising at the outset with the people who dug the holes in which we find ourselves or staying "above the fray" as legislators and lobbyists work out the details, but by articulating clearly what he believes in and putting the power and prestige of his office and his presence behind it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Drew Westen.