My take on President Obama’s narrative problem. Appeared in The New Yorker Online, January 10, 2010
It has always seemed to me that one of a president’s primary responsibilities is first and foremost to be a storyteller. We all know the importance of narratives, of stories; they are part the reasons our brains are so damn big. We need stories, we thrive on them, stories are how we shape our universe. Tolkien could have been talking about the power of stories when he described his One Ring: stories rule us, they find us, they bring us together, they bind us and yes, they can pull us apart as well. If a president is to have any success, if his policies are going to gain any kind of traction among the electorate he first has to tell us a story.
All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent accessible compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough so that we, the audience, can weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story 8 years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and re-elect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our president has not even told a bad story; he in my opinion has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The president gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing. The man has tried, of course; we’ve gotten patches of narrative around all the important issues: the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror (aka the Undiebomber) but I’ve yet to hear anything that excites that part of my brain which loves, which craves the symmetries the pleasures of well-told tale. Just this past Tuesday we saw the consequences for the president of not having a real story to draw upon. In Massachusetts the president was faced with an insurgent Republican candidate who was telling a story that should have been familiar to the president: the story of an upstart outsider with energy and ideas, who was going to shake things up etc. The president tried to help the Coakely campaign by campaigning but since his administration doesn’t seem to do story he couldn’t lend his to the Coakely people. He could only show up as himself and that clearly was not enough. A man cannot withstand a story, even if the man is remarkable and the story is simple. The story always wins.
(What I’ve been aware of is how much better storytellers the opposition are. Tea Parties and Death Panels—you might hate these bursts of craziness but these are above all else stories, narratives. Obama has provided his supporters with what exactly? Even the Bush administration, for all its criminal shortcomings, knew the value of a good story. Which is why when 9/11 befell us they rode that horse for all it was worth. Got a good six years out of it too.)
It is ironic, no it’s actually tragic, that the man who proved himself to be a fantastic storyteller on the campaign trail, who vaulted into office by fashioning his life, his promise into a great story (DREAMS OF OUR FATHER anyone) has been unable to locate an equally engaging narrative for his presidency.
Sometimes I wonder if he’s even trying.
I’ve been an Obama man all the way. I voted for him in 2008 and I’ll vote for him again in 2012, with far less enthusiasm. But it would help me out so much if he could give me some kind of story to hang onto. At this stage scrap would suffice. A president can have all the vision in the world, can be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, can have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, a president can have a bold progressive plan for his nation but none of these things will matter a wit to an electorate if the president cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his willingness to make painful choices, his plan in the idiom of story. It is hard to mobilize to feel invested in a terrible story or a confused story or in the case of the Obama administration no story at all. Obama needs to craft himself a strong story and fast if he expects to be able to accomplish anything in the three years that remain. His opponents are hard at work smithing their stories and if Obama does act soon he might find himself surrounded on all sides by crude powerful tales that no amount of ratiocination will be able to dispel. The president needs to remember his post’s true vocation: that of the Storyteller in Chief.
Losing the super majority won’t kill the Obama presidency. It’s his sudden inability to tell a good tale that will be his death-knell. If I was him I’d have hired less Ivy League policy wonks and brought in a couple of storytellers.