Obama’s Failed Narrative

Did the presidency ruin a good storyteller, or vice versa?

Did Barack Obama ruin politics? Or did politics ruin Barack Obama? At this point, most Americans have made up their minds about the president one way or another. But even for people who think they know who the man in the Oval Office really is, it’s easy to forget who he once was. 

Before running for political office, Barack Obama was a stubborn dreamer with a literary bent. Mostly he dreamed of living a better life story, even if that meant scrubbing away the blemishes of reality. Part of his appeal was the way he emerged from adversity unsullied. He was better than that. And with his help, we could be too.

That was Obama’s pitch to America. He would allow all of us to escape the mundane reality of politics, to live that better story with him, and erase the messiness of the past and present—just as he had done for himself. In Dreams from My Father, Obama’s 1995 book about his itinerant childhood and work as a community organizer in Chicago, the pre-presidential candidate recalls his grandfather’s habit of rewriting uncomfortable truths about his own history in order to produce a better future. Obama, who as a child lived with his grandparents for many years, admits to picking up the habit himself: “It was this desire of his to obliterate the past,” he writes, “this confidence in the possibility of remaking the world from whole cloth, that proved to be his most lasting patrimony.”

Obama applied that very American tradition to politics. His campaigns would be about making the world a better place—more personable, less racially charged, more united in goals and respectful in temperament—more true, in other words, to the story we all wanted to believe about America. The ugliness of politics past would lose its grip on the reimagined future.

But the power to imagine is not the power to accomplish. Vague, high-minded goals get sullied when translated into specific, practical policies. Nearly a full term of a moribund economy has turned the words hope and change into bitter punch lines. As time passes, the suspicion grows that the same narrative gift that made Obama so interesting and fresh in the mid-1990s contained the seeds of his failure as a president. Storytelling, it turns out, is no substitute for governance, and nothing ruins a promising writer faster than the practice of wielding power. As the allure of Obama’s dreams wears off, so has the allure of his presidency. Obama promised to change politics; instead, politics changed him. 

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father is neither policy book nor campaign bio. It’s more of a literary memoir/partially fictionalized coming-of-age tale/quest for racial and national identity kind of thing. It’s one of those books that people describe as “defying genre.” Like cotton candy, there’s less substance to it than it seems at first, but it’s sweet, soft, and gently overpowering. You might not be able to classify it, but you won’t soon forget it.

Part of what’s striking about the book is how little action there is. Obama doesn’t really do much throughout its 400-odd pages. He talks to people. He shares some thoughts. He grows up under an array of substitute father figures. He meets his real father, once. He goes to college at Columbia University, gets a job as a community organizer in Chicago, then leaves for Harvard Law. He talks to more people. He travels to Africa to meet his father’s family and learn more about his roots. He has some more thoughts. He ponders life, and race, and America, and himself. You don’t learn much about the world, exactly, but you do learn a lot about Barack Obama.

One of Obama’s key modes for grappling with the world, as it happens, is to rewrite it—preferably with a melancholy, literary bent. He nostalgically remembers his adolescent resentment at existence, and talks of fashioning an image for himself that involved smoking a lot and hanging out with Marxist theorists and leather-jacket-clad punk rockers. He’s angry at the world in a way that only a middle class kid with an Ivy League degree can be.

Dreams from My Father is not for everyone, but there’s real rhetorical power in the way it acknowledges the complexity of the world and resists the comfort of simple answers, as well as in its searching, poetic sadness. In the book’s climax, Obama receives a stack of his late father’s papers, then launches into a moony imagining of the man he barely knew as a little lost boy. “He’s hungry, tired, clinging to his sister’s hand, searching for the mother he’s lost. The hunger is too much for him, the exhaustion too great.”

This make-believe Dickensian father struggles to hold onto an imagined vision of his own mother, as if he can keep her alive and present through sheer will and belief. But eventually he succumbs to the fatigue, and the image of his mother “floats down, down into the emptiness.” His father survives, grows up, but—severed from his mother—retreats into his own mind. “He won’t forget the desperation of that day.”

Like a lot of literary types, Obama places high stock in the value of stories, and is always trying to live up to the story he imagines for himself. When explaining the big turning points in his life, he doesn’t spill much ink over the pros and cons; cost-benefit analysis tends to be an afterthought. Instead, Obama looks for symbolic acts that reveal—or create—his true character.

When he decides to quit the high-powered, high-paying business of corporate consulting for the low-paying, low-prestige world of community activism, Obama writes that “with the benefit of hindsight, I can construct a certain logic to my decisions, show how becoming an organizer was part of a larger narrative.” Later, when he leaves the Chicago housing project of Altgeld Gardens for Harvard Law, he’s still trying to fill out an imagined story arc: “I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail,” he wrote, “knowledge that would have compromised me before coming to Chicago but that I could now bring back to where it was needed, back to Roseland, back to Altgeld; bring it back like Promethean fire. That’s the story I had been telling myself.”

But young Obama isn’t Prometheus; he’s Aesop. He brought fables, not fire. He writes in hushed tones about the “sacred stories” of the people he meets as a community organizer. It’s all part of his character arc: Like in a third-act revelation of a cheesy Hollywood screenplay, their stories are what help him find himself. Learning the tales of their lives, he writes, “helped me bind my world together…they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for.” This sentiment, which would follow him to the presidency, combines Obama’s post-grad literary sensibility with a youthful narcissism: The lives he encounters become vehicles for his own self-fulfillment.

Obama’s insistence on putting his own journey at the center of other people’s anecdotes can be off-putting. But what saves Dreams from My Father is that the future president also seems genuinely interested in lives and characters for their own sake. Their lives matter to him. But they also matter, period. 

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  • $park¥||

    But the power to imagine is not the power to accomplish. Vague, high-minded goals get sullied when translated into specific, practical policies.

    It's not his fault that everybody didn't clap their hands and believe hard enough. Cut the guy some slack, it take a lot of work to get a fairy off the ground.

  • R C Dean||

    it take a lot of work to get a fairy off the ground.

    Andrew Sullivan can definitely confirm this.

  • ||

    Failed narrative? The narrative was failed long before the dunce adopted it.

  • Killazontherun||

    That's the part that gets me too. We've seen this shit played out many times before, and it doesn't get any prettier in the retelling.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Like in a third-act revelation of a cheesy Hollywood screenplay, their stories are what help him find himself. Learning the tales of their lives, he writes, “helped me bind my world together…they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for.”

    Unfortunately, Cher is not available to slap that vacuous mooncalf face and yell, "SNAP OUT OF IT!"

  • apollobartender||

    Interesting analysis and you obviously did read the books. I don't agree with the outcome,as for me, there are times I wonder what ever made Obama believe he was really a Democrat. I think if he had been the Republican that he actually is, he would not have pushed the right further over which they did just to make an opposition to his 'left' views, that no one else in the progressive party believes is left at all. He has sided with business, the stock market has never been healthier; the uber rich are doing great; there is still a paltry showing for middle class progress. Obama is progressive in that he does, as you describe, make more optimistic observations about culture, people and lives, which makes him a great ambassador, the U.S. foreign policy standing hasnt seen better times since just post world war II. But domestically in matters of trade, business, he is a redstate politician. That fact is born out of the financial situation today.

  • Jordan||

    Obama is progressive in that he does, as you describe, make more optimistic observations about culture, people and lives, which makes him a great ambassador, the U.S. foreign policy standing hasnt seen better times since just post world war II.

    This is just unsubstantiated nonsense.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    That is some of the finest parody I have ever read.

    *applauds vigorously*

  • Killazontherun||

    You bleach the meaning out of all the descriptive words you use, so you can recolor them again to mean anything. No matter Obama gives the 'private sector is doing fine' speech, no matter his race baiting and West Coast hippie stoking 'fuck the suburbs' rhetoric, no matter his empowerment of public employee unions über alles. He is just a right-centrist moderate. The elasticity of your rhetoric is very similar to that I see in a lot of young British writers. You sound like a Brit living in a left culture with the mistaken belief capitalism and Marxism of equally normative systems of political economy. That doesn't make you sophisticated; it just means you are unable to make distinctions in classification that give your argument any backbone.

  • Killazontherun||

    Marxism of are equally

  • Mickey Rat||

    "..I wonder what ever made Obama believe he was really a Democrat."

    A Republican occasionally has to pay lip service to staying within th bounds of the Constitution and respecting natural rights, Deomcrats do not. No need for you to continue wondering.

  • ant1sthenes||

    One more piece of the proof that he's the second coming of Mussolini; the left is now redefining him as a man of the right. We have always been at war with Obama.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    He's the 2nd coming of Caligula, who also declared himself a God.
    Caligula's end was not pretty.

  • johnl||

    Is there someone pushing this idea now? Can someone find the article so we can mock it? No fun bringing up stuff from 2008.

  • JohnR22||

    Ahhhh. This is the indicator that the bottom truly is falling out for Obama; when the Left concludes that Obama is really a closet republican.

    But, the Left MUST do this. Either they blame the message or they blame the messenger. The Left cannot blame the message; they cannot admit that european style socialism is every bit as much a failure as marxism. Sooooo, they must blame the messenger.

    As the article said, it's like the businessman who says it's not that we have a bad product, it's that we have bad marketing.

  • BigT||

    How bad will it get when he loses? Will they disown him? Will he be shunned? Or will they blame the bleeting masses of gun-clutchers? Or claim a conspiracy to steal the election by racists? OR ALL OF THE ABOVE?

    November is going to be sweet! So much schadenfreude, so little time.

  • johnl||

    The SP 500 is below where it was 12 years ago. That's not what "never been healthier" looks like.

  • ||

    Obama writes like a teenage girl longing for the captain of the football team, only more shallow and self centered.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Somehow, reading this article made me think of that obnoxious Flowbots(?) song.

  • Rick Santorum||

    The narrative of Barack Obama is alive and well among Americans. He's honest, unlike that lying Romney. He's genuine, unlike that fake, robotic Romney. He's for peace, unlike that warmongering Romney. He's going to make sure that the womyn are taken care of, unlike that patriarchal, misogynistic, rape-apolozing Romney.

    As the Obama's time in office most resemble the failures of Carter, I have to ask myself: did the media help Carter this much?

  • AAC||

    And then there was Obama's creating US foreign policy around himself and his experiences in Indonesia. Remember how everything was going to change on the day he was elected because of who he was?

  • JohnR22||

    Let's face it; we had a perfect storm in 2008. Eight years of the incompetent Bush who jacked the national debt to $8T. Two unpopular and failed wars. And then six weeks before the election we had the most severe financial collapse since the Great Depression. McCain was tarred by association.

    And what did we have? An elegant, debonair black man who successfully sold himself as the redeemer. Man, he was gonna change EVERYTHING; he was gonna make america post-racial, he was gonna usher in a "different kind of politics", he was gonna cut the debt and fix the economy. He was even going to heal the planet and cause the oceans to recede. The Left wing MSM utterly fell in love...literally in love...and lots of voters swallowed the whole thing.

    Well, it was nothing more than hype and BS. Obama is inexperienced, a poor leader, and his BIG IDEA is...wait for it....1970s era european style socialism. The man is an unmitigated disaster, and hopefully future generations will learn to beware of the grab bag wrapped in pretty new bows bangles.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    Sad thing is...all that information about BO's true nature was easily available to anyone with the slightest curiosity and open mind. It's not like he was cloaked in mystery.

  • dbmd||

    reason. FREE MINDS AND FREE MARKETS... AND FREE BS. WTF? I'd like to leave some constructive criticism but it's hard to constructively criticize crap. Washington Times, NYDP level of reasoning. Have fun with the rest of your career as a right wing blogophite. I hear Redstate.com is looking for some conspiracy theory writers. And yes, this is the civil version.

  • ||

    I guess you don't want to know what the REAL right wing blogophites think about this.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Care to actually, you know, point out why you disagree rather than go off on a typical, left-wing rant?

    At least you didn't say Faux-news.

    Point to you...I guess.

  • ||

    I'm guessing this is a reply to dbmd.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Yes.

  • dbmd||

    Oh sure, I'll guess I'll bite. This is an "opinion" piece written by a right wing blogger... er... "writer"... who uses inference and suggestion to write a salacious narrative of the "illegitimate" President of the United States". I'm sure that the author (whatever his name is... won't matter next year) is heartfelt in his criticism and would "never call the President illegitimate". But it is ideologically motivated. It has no more truth than the fairy tales we read as children. It is opinion. It is simply one man's mental masturbation. There are people in America that consider Mien Kampf thougthful reading as well. This article is not a policy argument. It is an attempt to belittle a sitting president who "only believes in stories". I grew up poor and am now a rich physician. Long live America and Long Live the American "Story". Despite it's moribund detractors.

  • ||

    You obviously didn't read the article at all.

  • ||

    And again, you offer no actual criticisms of the author, you just make strange ad hominem attacks. And I mean REALLY out there. Where did this critique even come from? You REALLY didn't even glance at more than the first few sentences, did you?

  • ||

    Should read, "criticisms of the article".

  • Cavpitalist||

    I've never known a leftist who could read more than highlights.

    Want to have some real fun? Argue with a leftist/Demo about one political subject for more than 30 seconds. Any political subject. Once the Maddow sound bites and Daily Kos headlines are exhausted, it's all emotion and invective.

    And YOU will be the fucking idiot, naturally.

  • Cavpitalist||

    I should probably be more specific. I'm not including the .2% of leftists/Demos who can articulate their beliefs, and stand on principle.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    This is so true. I can never get them to stay on the subject at hand. They just go from one boogey man to the next.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Huffington is that way.

  • ||

    I think we're a little farther left than Huffington Post, here. This is more on the level of Media Matters stuff.

  • MoreFreedom||

    Like many liberals, Obama prefers to see the story in his head, rather than reality. Psychiatrists say liberalism is a mental disorder specifically because of this. Liberals ignore reality to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance (holding contradictory thoughts).

    And it explains much of Obama's lies, like his continuing lie (which he repeated in the debate) that if you like your insurance you can keep it.

    I guess many folks bought his story, preferring to believe in him, rather than reality.

  • ||

    Psychiatrists say liberalism is a mental disorder specifically because of this.

    SURE they do.

    Liberals ignore reality to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance (holding contradictory thoughts).

    Unlike people in other political persuasions, who NEVER ignore reality.

  • johnl||

    I wonder if this white Regina with the vision of a black life is the same one who tied James Levy in knotts.

  • Abu Nudnik||

    He sure did "rewrit[e] uncomfortable truths about his own history? He wrote (in Dreams) that his dad got a scholarship to go to Harvard but was too broke to bring along wife and child. Lots of poor students bring their families: I doubt that was the reason. Then he writes "a separation occurred." Can you think of a more passive way to write that? Dad didn't leave me, he just magically got not there. He left his wife and kid in Africa to come for a scholarship then he leaves a second wife and kid to go back. It wouldn't be the last time. He would leave two more and die while married to the fifth, leaving seven children behind. Obama tries to make a hero out of an unheroic man by writing that he went back to fulfill a commitment to a continent, to apply what he learned in America to Africa. Sexual continence wasn't one of those things. This is what the incontinent father applied what he learned in America to Africa. 1) Since not keeping it in his pants had no adverse effects on him, he continued the practice, 2) Socialism is the answer to the single mother problem since I have no intention of taking care of my own.

    I fail to see how "rewriting uncomfortable truths about his own history" is something praiseworthy.

    Obama reminds me of those kids sent from relative to relative, learning to be charming in constant terror of yet another rejection. It may be that force, that search for love that led to his strange psychology and need to be adored. A loss would be grievous.

  • شات عراقنا||

    very nice

  • Love Station||

    Great superman! People are missing you.

  • cinsel chat||

    good thanks sohbet
    cinsel sohbet

  • LifeStrategies||

    President Obama may be a good story-teller, but that unfortunately just means that too many people believe his stories, instead of realizing they are fiction. Others, like me, feel betrayed by his turnaround on what seemed to be his principles.

    Senator Barack Obama, March 16, 2006: “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the US Government cannot pay its own bills. ... America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

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