The Obama "Narrative" Narrative

Imagine what the president could do if only he had a better bumper sticker!

"Every successful [political] campaign," Jon Taplin noted last month over at TPMCafe, "has a narrative." And "if there's one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One," The New York Times' Frank Rich added two weeks ago, "it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative."

What does "narrative" mean in this context? "An overarching goal that explains, unifies, and gives motive to his multiple initiatives," said Dan Payne in the Boston Globe. Or if you prefer neuro-management-speak, try Forbes columnist Nick Morgan: "Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information, we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need to in the modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative. The narrative is the quick story that has developed over a long period of time for any organization, company or important public figure. It's the way we store and organize the information."

So to help citizens most beneficially organize information about his policies, the president, according to this narrative, needs a single, one-sentence explanation for his blizzard of initiatives and laws, each of which can run as long as 2,400 pages. The "problem," political journalist Jonathan Alter told The New York Times, in a piece that ran under the headline "Democrats Need a Rally Monkey," is "not finding a coherent message."

This message gap is not for lack of helpful suggestion. Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the human one-sentence-explanation dispenser, was already giving the president a roadmap for solving his "'narrative' problem" last November: "What is that narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America."

When the president failed to heed Friedman's cocktail-napkin instructions, the globe-trotting New York Times columnist repeated it last month with a bit more exasperation: "The thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics—when it is so obvious," Friedman wrote. "Mr. Obama won the election because...[independent voters] knew in their guts that the country was on the wrong track and was desperately in need of nation-building at home."

Italics in the original.

It's not hard to see the attraction of such logic. If all there was separating you from your political desires was a perfectly calibrated bumper sticker, imagine all the time you could save once you arrived at the right slogan! Surely beats zero-sum budgetary tradeoffs, dreary committee meetings, bill "mark-up" exercises, Congressional Budget Office scores, parliamentary maneuverings, or even substantive non-governmental policy discussions on the topics you claim to care about.

This may be an understandable, if somewhat distasteful, intellectual path to tread for people whose jobs are based on winning elections. After all, politics has always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and hatreds do not linger long on process or policy white papers. Bumper stickers tend to be designed by people who see the target audience as bumps in need of a good sticking.

But "narrative" creep has long since passed into and occasionally overwhelmed the very activity that should theoretically be most immune to it: journalism. It's unintentionally telling enough about their regard for the little people that journalists—even those of us in the opinion-manufacturing division—go hunting for magical slogans with which personages more powerful than us can move the pliable masses. But when the hunt for narratives, metaphors, and one-line explainers becomes a central part of the nonfiction production process, all of those nagging details fade to mush and entire conclusions are constructed upon generalized statements with little or no measurable relationship to fact.

So the master reductionist David Brooks judges President Obama to be "the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency" without citing a single shred of the Obama administration's real-world education policy (which has—surprise!—ladeled unprecedented sums of money to the unreformed status quo). Not a day goes by without some semi-well-regarded commentator stating as fact that George W. Bush helped to intentionally "sap" the "strength" and even "disable" the federal government, leading directly to the financial crisis and various other horrors. I can't begin to tell you how often I watch reporters' jaws drop when I mention that, actually, Bush grew the federal government at a rate not seen since LBJ and jacked up regulations (including on the financial industry) in a way that would make Bill Clinton blush.

But the "narrative" narrative's biggest flaw is, appropriately, big-picture in nature. As journalism academic Robert Schmuhl wrote in a smart Politics Daily column decrying "the nattering nabobs of narrative," what's "missing" in the messaging analysis "is the recognition that campaigning and governing are related—but distinct—pursuits." Bumper stickers help politicians gain office, but real-world results (plus the advantages of incumbency) are what keep them there. They're also what matter much more to the consumers of journalism.

Or as the liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote, "It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, it's the all-too-clear reality." Citizens are "desperate for jobs, jobs, jobs," but while the employment situation continues to lag the administration's worst-case scenarios, all anyone hears is "health care, health care, health care."

But rest assured—even when the Rasputin-like health care bill is finally wrestled to the ground one way or another, the "narrative" narrative will only continue to gather steam. Reason #4 for supporting the latest version of Obamacare, according to political strategist Robert Creamer in The Huffington Post, is that it "will completely change the political narrative. Instead of 'Obama fails to deliver on promises' or 'Democrats confront gridlock' the new narrative will be 'Obama and Democrats raise health care—like a Phoenix—from the dead.' That new narrative is heroic."

Call me a nabob, but what I think would really be heroic is if commentators with any pretensions left of journalism spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy than on how the president might most effectively sell it to the skeptical sheeple. At least that's my narrative, and I'm sticking to it.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • qwerty||

    How about this narrative:

    "I want to run your life."

  • Rich||

    It'll be withdrawn from consideration as soon as they realize the bumpersticker is easily defaced corrected to "I want to ruin your life."

  • RichN||

    By just adding an "I" no wonder the BORG-like collective hates individualism.

  • ||

    I've always liked "Unicorns with raibows coming out of their butts", but I'll accept "Reality will go away if we stridently ignore it".

  • ||

    I realized the left was totally and irreparably delusional when they started referring to themselves as the "reality-based community." WTF? You. . .are. . .exactly. . .the. . .opposite. . .of. . .that.

  • ||

    Or..."I am a fucking idiot, just like you."

  • ||

    Remember that old Jonathan Edwards song? "He can't even run his own life. I'll be damned if he'll run mine!!!"

  • The Ghost of Spiro Agnew||

    You're a nabob!!

  • Ghost of Nixon||

    AROOOO!!!

  • Gilbert Martin||

    :According to leading journalists like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times,..."

    When did Friedman get promoted to "leading journalist"

    I thought his official status was "worthless piece-of-shit hack".

  • ||

    David Brooks has fellated his way to that position.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +8

  • ||

    Editor in Chief Matt Welch would prefer if journalists spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy than on how the president might most effectively sell it to the skeptical sheeple.

    Hell, yeah. One of the signs that the media had totally relinquished its "fourth estate" role was when you started regularly hearing journalists talk about how a politician should have presented a plan or sold a policy. Wrong! Stop worrying about the gamesmanship of politics and focus entirely on the substance of what they're doing.

    Thank you.

  • ||

    The journalists now consider themselves part of the political game--if not overtly then subconsciously--and therefore feel free to opine on how it should be played.

  • ||

    That's correct. In fact, consider how many from the commentariat were (or are, he hints darkly) political advisers or even politicians.

    This all started when the media began holding back its punches to protect access to high officials. Big mistake. And unnecessary. The government needed and still needs the media much more than the media needs it. There's always the Tiger Woods of the day, after all.

    If the press did its job, we might be in much less of a mess now than we are.

  • ||

    The press doesn't have a "job". They provide a product. That product has grown increasingly poorer over the years, which is why are taking it on the chin.

    It's not the press' fault that we're in a mess; they're not our parents or gatekeepers. We're in a mess because people want shit for free and they vote for people who promise it. Then they go "oh shit, look, this went too far!"

    Well fuck you--you should have realized that before you voted for chump after parasitic, redistributing chump.

  • ||

    Well, I don't disagree, but that was supposedly the product they were selling (the part covering the government, anyway). Also, kind of like other professions, there is supposed to be, as part of the product, a certain level of professional ethics.

    Ultimately, of course, I agree that we're to blame. We've been a million different kinds of idiot in recent years.

  • dennis||

    I don't think most people vote for someone who is going to give them free shit. I don't think this reflects most voters' thought processes while in the booth. Most people vote against the side they hate more. I know plenty of Democrats who hate the entitlement state, but they fear social conservatives far more. The majority of Republicans I know don't give a crap one way or the other about gay marriage, they just don't want their taxes raised. Hell if I felt that voting was a good idea and had to pick between Bush or Gore in 2000 I would have gone with Bush,not because he was any good, but because Gore scared the piss out of me. Voting, for most people is an exercise in keeping the worst from happening, not achieving the best.

  • ||

    "I know plenty of Democrats who hate the entitlement state, but they fear social conservatives far more. "

    From a 'social conservative' perspective, I'm still not sure what Republicans really accomplished the time they were in power. Is this really something to be afraid of? It's not like they tried to push through some major restructuring of national society. Most seemed to be perfectly content with getting the usual pork shunted to their constituents.

  • PACW||

    I was going to comment to Mr. Welch about what a wonderful piece this was and then I read your comment.

    I am sitting here semi-dazed because you made me realize my 35 year crush on journalists should have been put away with my crush on Frank Poncherello.

    I've never bought into the idea that some professions should be 'above' profit (Like medical care!)but I have always thought of journalism as a 'calling' more than as a business.

    Maybe if my mom had let me see the movie Carrie instead of The Presidents Men . . . .

  • ||

    But "the media" isn't a monolithic entity. If media outlet A goes easier on politicians than media outlet B, media outlet A is going to be rewarded with more access and thus more artificial "scoops"...putting media outlet B at a disadvantage until they start playing ball too. I know we love competition and all, but it's a double-edged sword sometimes.

  • ||

    I guess one problem is that we consumers don't punish media outlets enough for being unreliable and corrupt.

  • x,y||

    True, but "we" do a better job of now than 10 years ago. Fox News and the proliferation of media outlets are a testament to that. The NYT and the rest are taking it on the chin wallet.

  • ||

    Right you are!

  • ||

    More than opine, actively try to shape and direct it and give it a push when it feels necessary is more like it.

    They liken themselves to king makers and anointers of those that share their ideology, and disparage those that don't.

    When they expose hypocrisy (even in those leaders with whom I share a bias) and inconsistencies in a party line, that is when they have done their job effectively.

  • ||

    Maybe they're auditioning for public relations jobs when their newspapers go bankrupt.

  • ||

    What's mine is mine, what's yours is mine.

  • ¢||

    "America's my racist cracker whore mother I'll rape into loving me" isn't heroic enough? Jeez. Olympian standards. Super-Olympian! It was heroic enough for those other orating-between-columns dudes.

  • ||

    Reason, arguments and facts are for losers. Elections have consquences. Ice Cream has no bones.

  • ||

    OBEY!

  • TXLimey||

    Hmmm, maybe if they use that dumb-ass Obama logo for the 'O'....

    Just picturing it in my mind makes me feel all Hopey/Changey.

  • Michael||

    It's in the works and will be unveiled just as soon as Shep Fairey finds the ideal source from which to steal reference the remaining three letters.

  • ||

    "Democrats Need a Rally Monkey"

    No shit?

    I thought that was the last election.

    )I'm a baaaaad boy.)

  • Solanum||

    OH NO YOU DI'INT

  • Death Panelist||

    At least for the rest of this year it does not appear to matter what the press says or the public thinks. Congress knows best.

  • ||

    The problem isn't the lack of a narrative from the White House. We can come up with our own, thanks.

    Most Americans do have a narrative for this administration. The problem is that its just not one that the administration (and its lackeys in the media) find useful.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    The narrative for Obama is that everything he is trying to do is based on socialist ideological drivel.

  • ||

    Instead of 'Obama fails to deliver on promises' or 'Democrats confront gridlock' the new narrative will be 'Obama and Democrats raise health care—like a Phoenix—from the dead.' That new narrative is heroic."

    They can try to peddle that crap, but I doubt they'll find many buyers.

    I suspect the dominant narrative will be:

    "Obama and the Democrats lied and cheated to ram through a catastrophically bad bill over the vocal objections of the citizenry."

  • ||

    Heroic? Demonic might be a better word.

  • ||

    From AEI today

    "The financial incentives for employers to move workers into the exchanges are most powerful when it comes to middle-income wage earners. Here's an example:

    To buy that mid-level, "silver" health plan, the tax code effectively subsidizes a family earning $42,000 a year to the tune of about $5,500 for employer-provided coverage. But in the exchange, they'd get a direct government subsidy in 2016 of $12,100. The exchange is clearly a better deal.

    But, again, the subsidies phase out, so that a family earning around $100,000 loses out: Because they won't get insurance through work, they'll lose the tax-code subsidy for insurance--but they'll get no subsidy to buy the mandated expensive policy."

    If that is true and Obamacare crushes the middle class like that, this will be the end of the Democratic Party. The end. The votes are in the middle class. Democrats won't be able to win anywhere if this thing gets passed. And the mandate will get repealed. I garuentee it. Obamacare is not an entitlement. For the vast majority of the people, it is a crushing tax and mandate.

  • Jen||

    Who is going to repeal it? You know as well as I do that the Republicans will never have the filibuster-proof majority that the Democrats enjoyed until last month.

  • reality-based community||

    A phoenix burns itself to ash to give birth to a new phoenix, no one raises them from the dead.

    Admit it, they originally wanted to say "Lazarus", but then someone remembered that they would be playing into the opposition's Obamessiah narrative.

  • Jen||

    I would have said "zombie."

  • Mark||

    "I think would really be heroic is if commentators with any pretensions left of journalism spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy than on how the president might most effectively sell it to the skeptical sheeple."

    You know I made a similar point when writing to the LA Times during the 2008 Election. What the paper was writing was all about "the horse race". I pointed out that the Times should stop focusing on the race and focus on the issues. Of course that little twit Cavenaugh took what I wrote and blasted it on his LA Time blog for being an example of people overly concerned with language. Thing is the little douche never touched on the core of what I was saying (e.g., still provided no coverage of the issues themselves). Cavenaugh is so much like Obama that way.

  • ed||

    Well done, Matt.
    "[I]f commentators with any pretensions left of journalism spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy..."
    But there's the rub. Contemporary journalism is wholly unprepared and unqualified to meet that challenge. Unsatisfied with merely presenting the dry facts, today's advocacy journalists attempt to inject their own political philosophy (such as it is) into the narrative. That's not their job; that's the role of the philosophers, who have all but abdicated their responsibilities.

  • ||

    I can't begin to tell you how often I watch reporters' jaws drop when I mention that, actually, Bush grew the federal government at a rate not seen since LBJ and jacked up regulations (including on the financial industry) in a way that would make Bill Clinton blush.

    Why can't you? I'd really like the names of some reporters that have this information.

  • ||

    "So the master reductionist reductio absurdist David Brooks judges President Obama to be "the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency" without citing a single shred of the Obama administration's real-world education policy bribe"

    FTFY

  • Almanian||

    Current Narrative = "HAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA SUCKERS!"

  • Numeromancer||

    Stossel, take notes; that is how you write an opinion piece.

  • Gabe E||

    +1

  • JoshInHB||

    I used to believe that financial success was the result of hard work and intelligence.

    Then I contemplated the careers and works of;
    Thomas (I love the chicoms)Freidman,
    Paul Krugman,
    David Brooks and Barrack H Obama

    And I realized the Progs are right.

    Intelligence and hard work have nothing to do with success.

    It's all luck and who you blow.

  • Zenmaster||

    That explains Andy Dick!

  • FutureSerf||

    New progressive slogan:

    "Healthcare: Our first step (that you've thought about) into the world of Socialism"

    To be framed under any of the awful pictures of Pelosi.

  • FutureSerf||

    OR.... "WWWWD"

    What would Woodrow Wilson do?

  • Jim Treacher||

    The underlying narrative behind everything he does is blindingly obvious, but apparently we're not supposed to call him a socialist.

  • ||

    This is crazy. There IS an Obama narrative; a pithy, accurate, and easy to understand narrative. It's Socialism for America. The problem is that Obama can't SAY this...so the real issue is coming up with a narrative that sounds good, and that the voters will buy. In other words a pithy lie.

  • ||

    As one of my favorite movie characters (President Andy Shepherd) said (paraphrase), "I've known Bob Rumson, er, I mean Barak Obama for years. I used to think he just didn't get it. I was wrong, he gets it, he just can't sell it"

  • ||

    "I can't begin to tell you how often I watch reporters' jaws drop when I mention that, actually, Bush grew the federal government at a rate not seen since LBJ and jacked up regulations (including on the financial industry) in a way that would make Bill Clinton blush."
    You and your reality based view.

    Seriously, I have to say it is very frustrating to hear that the lack of financial regulation caused our problems - when it was a lack of spine, guts, brains, heart, and doodads.

  • ||

    Dear god, yes. But, haven't you noticed only "thought leaders" can produce "narratives." The rest of us are mere readers. When this erstwile liberal green writer ventured into rural America to discover the lies and betrayals that my fellow environmentalists had foised on struggling rural communities, one timber activist, a woman, said to me: "Joan, I believe the American people still have a truth muscle." On another occasion, when I read at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Festival and was attacked by a fellow enviro, Michael Martin Murphy said to me "you're a truth-teller and that's what happens." I don't know that I am a truth-teller; I do know that he is a kind man who was concerned about me. Nonetheless, I would like to see the "truth" elevated as a value versus the less savory "narrative." Truth telling is far less cohersive than a narrative whose sole mission is to persuade. The truth stands on its own merits; in my experience, it is dangerous and challenging. In my experience, it is an act of courage for the sake of the community; it is an action -- not a narrative. I know that I have a strong hankering for it; I suspect the rest of us do as well. I am bone weary with Presidential sermons that seem to have no design so grand as his own legacy.

  • ||

    Inspiring comment!

    If "Chevalier" is indeed your real name, you wear it well...

  • ||

    All too often, Matt, I comment when I disagree and not enough when I agree. Great article. I commented on a recent Bernie Sanders piece in the Boston Globe call the GOP the party of NO and said that the time had passed for such facile sloganizing and that he had missed entirely the dumbing-up of the American people largely due to the Internet, perhaps.

    I think many of us and certainly those who are older really long for what may be a nostalgic remembrance of journalism many years ago, when I think journalists were actually trying to explain and understand issues and events, rather than serving as comedic-narrative-cheerleaders.

    Given the public's near universal dislike for the health care bill -- I think all but the core hard left of maybe 20% may dislike this bill or prefer a new bill -- we have already been forewarned by Obama and Pelosi that the voters will be barraged with narratives selling the bill between now and elections.

    The citizens have learned to distrust narratives and have come to recognize them quickly. They were given rosy narratives about health care and when they dug into it eventually, they discovered that the 30,000 foot narrative bore no resemblance to the reality of the bill. They will distrust or ignore the narrative and focus on the cumulative effects of the bill.

    Nancy Pelosi said that they should and will pass this historic bill and once its passed all the workers will see how good it is for them. How's that hopey-change working for you, Nancy?

    As the economy continues to be mired in a deepening recession and unemployment persists at 10%, it will be hard to sell them that increased taxes and premium costs are a good trade for covering the medical costs of welfare recipients and illegal immigrants.

    If, in fact, as many doctors as recent polls suggest (25-45%) leave their practices, because of the impact of the health bill, the qualitative decline in access and delivery will be felt directly and quickly. Its hard to come up with a successful narrative here.

    Obama is so conceited that he will see the passage of this as being due to his speeches and stumping and bribery and arm-twisting. He will be completely preoccupied with selling his health care narrative between now and November, while fighting legal challenges, and as a result, nothing will get done to fix what's broke: the economy.

    The passage into irrelevance of the "narrative" form of politics will coincide with the loss of the Democrat majorities in Congress and the conversion of Obama into a frustrated and flustered lamest-of-ducks trying to run the country further into socialism through his only remaining capability, his executive powers. This summer will be an ugly narrative.

  • ||

    The bumper sticker...
    "I'm not just taking your money, but your healthcare too."
    Simple enough.

  • Ben||

    The Democrats, right now, remind me of GM 20-30 years ago. Marketing was more important than the product. We can all see what happened to GM. "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time". Since there will be no one to bail out the Dems, good riddance (until the Repubs, overplay their hand that is, ala George Bush--"deficits don't matter"). How do these guys get to be President?

  • ||

    Obama and the Democrats have given us a narrative. Its a narrative of arrogance and corruption. A narrative of Broken promises and abuse of raw naked political power. So many broken promises, so many lies, so much corruption!

  • ||

    I guess that's possible, that narrative thing. It could also be that he's a lying SOS and will say anything to get what he wants - his place in "his-tory".

  • ||

    "Narrative" is a lazy, biased, agenda journalist's imputation of motives, intents and purposes to the words and actions of his subjects through his characterization of them. E.g. a protest by conservatives and libertarians is "an angry, threatening, mostly white mob shouting bigoted epithets" while a protest by liberals is "a diverse celebration of free speech and civic engagement".

    See how that works? The narrative sets labels to things by characterizing them. These labels then frame the facts of every story. E.g. conservatives and libertarians oppose ObamaCare (because they're angry, rich white guys who don't care about anyone who's not rich and white, which is why they want black, brown and yellow people to hurry up and die when they get sick). Everything between the parentheses is not true, but that doesn't matter to most journalists. It's the narratives and not the facts that drive their stories.

  • ||

    One point I think everyone is missing is the fact that the Democrats have recently been arguing that the success of Republicans (when they have it) is due to their better "narrative". They can't admit that Republicans sometimes have better ideas--they're just better at selling them. That's why the Democrats are focused on getting a "narrative" of their own all of a sudden.

  • Historicus||

    New bumper sticker submission:

    Forget birth certificates.
    LEGALIZE MARIJUANA!

  • ||

    truth,,,,obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led."
    "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one."
    "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it."
    "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise."pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half Judaised, and the other half negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit… The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned. STOP THIS COMMUNIST OBAMA ,GOD HELP US ALL .THE COMMANDER ((GOD OPEN YOUR EYES)) stop the communist obama & pelosi.((open you eyes)) ,the commander

  • Shane||

    The narrative for Obama is that everything he is trying to do is based on socialist ideological drivel.

    Obama - and most politicians are the best spinner's when it comes to making everything try and sound as good as possible

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  • Wilford Tonnessen||

    i feel pashion stated is true.

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