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Obama Fails to Battle Back Against Bullies

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink
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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

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Why has Barack Obama been such a disappointment to many progressives? More importantly, why has he failed the country in a time of crisis?

It's largely because Obama does not understand how bullies operate, according to a prominent political psychologist. Obama has a poor grasp of "bully dynamics," says Drew Westen, professor of psychology at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

Westen presents numerous insights in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times. It's titled "What Happened to Obama?" and it should be required reading for the many Americans who voted for Obama and are watching him shrink before our eyes.

Westen points to two overriding failings of the Obama administration: (1) The president is a gifted orator who has failed to use those skills to communicate boldly with the American people; (2) The president is a constitutional scholar who has failed to stand up for fundamental matters of justice.

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Under item No. 2, Obama has allowed himself to be bullied by Republican rivals who specialize in such tactics. Westen speaks eloquently on this point and notes the irony of our first black president being virtually clueless about the principles that drove Martin Luther King:

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.

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.

That means holding bullies accountable. It means recognizing the importance of simple justice, especially for regular Americans who are suffering the most in our current economy. We have touched on this subject many times, decrying Obama's insistence on "looking forward, not backwards" at the apparent criminality of the Bush administration--and the raging inequality the Bush White House helped unleash on our society.

Yet, as Westen so succinctly puts it, Obama utterly fails to understand "bully dynamics"--as practiced by Republicans and the elites who benefit from their policies.

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Sadly, the passage from Westen above might prove to be the most profound words ever written about Barack Obama. The president took office at a time when American society was saturated with bullies. Our economy and our justice system had been brought to the edge of collapse . . . by the actions of bullies. Here on our little blog about injustice, we report on the actions of bullies almost every day. They drive much of the dysfunction that permeates our courtrooms and our boardrooms.

This is not just a personal failing for Obama. As our president, his failure to fight for the "arc of the moral universe" puts all of us at risk. Writes Westen:

The arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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