Obama’s Failed Narrative

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

(Page 3 of 4)

Obama often gets credit for going out of his way to recognize the concerns and viewpoints of his political opponents. It can seem as if he’s disarming himself. But what he’s actually done is deploy a weaponized rhetorical formula that gives him a tactical advantage. Regardless of the policy up for debate, that formula usually goes something like this: Democrats are partially right and partially wrong, and so, too, are Republicans. What we need to do, then, is come together and accept the solution put forth by Obama and his Democratic colleagues.

Obama had a long-term vision for ending political division in America, for changing the way Washington worked, for putting an end to the cynicism and bitterness of the political process. That vision consisted of electing Barack Obama as president. During the 2008 campaign, his team put forth the requisite number of simplified policy frameworks laying out how he’d address issues such as health care, global warming, and education. But Obama’s grandest promise wasn’t a policy. It was transforming politics into something better, something that people could believe in. As he put it a week before the election, choosing hope and change would restore “what’s been lost these last eight years—our sense of common purpose, of higher purpose.” There was never any detailed plan for how to do that. He didn’t need one. Obama was the plan.

It’s around this time that the bad poetry begins to appear. Instead of narrative specificity and individual lives, he offered cheap political pabulum for the masses. Instead of genuine sentiment he offered generic uplift. Instead of rich and lyrical uneasiness about the world, he offered dull and self-satisfied certainty, and promises that the complexities of life can be made simple.

Gone is any sense of modesty, or limitations. Gone is the literary uncertainty of his best writing. Gone is the sense that other people matter, except as stepping-stones to Obama’s own place in history.

From his first presidential campaign onward, Obama’s speeches are still dotted with empathetic notes, but a striking number of these are now framed in the first person, as examples of what he knows about himself rather than descriptions of what other people are like. “I know something about the heartbreak caused by the health system,” he says in a speech about health policy. “I know that many of you are feeling anxiety right now, about your jobs, about your homes, about your life savings,” he says in a speech about the financial crisis. “I know you’ve had a tough time with for-profit charter schools here in Ohio,” he says in a speech about education policy.

He’s no longer helping readers walk in others’ shoes; he’s helping potential voters walk in his. What were once displays of empathy toward others are now calls for the public to empathize with him. The same youthful self-absorption that saw the stories from Altgeld as part of his own journey toward meaning and personal fulfillment now sees the lives of every American as a path toward the same.

Instead of individual characters, Obama is only concerned with national character. Over and over again, his campaign speeches describe something he sees as wrong with the world and then declare, “That’s not who we are.” But as often as not, Obama seems to be describing his own character: not who we are, but who he is.

As Obama’s political profile exploded, so did his ambitions. He started making promises that politics cannot fulfill. His acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 was dripping with almost laughable hubris. “I am absolutely certain,” he said, “that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” 

It was a long way from fixing toilets in Chicago. Obama wrote an ostentatiously grand narrative for himself, sold it to the voting public, then expected the entire country to help make it happen.

‘Who We Are’

History had another story in mind. Obama took the White House, but he did not unite the country behind a single agenda. Nor did he bring peace to the warring factions in American politics. Instead he pursued the symbolic acts that his grand historic narrative required: an economic stimulus bill of unprecedented size and unhelpful effect, an overhaul of the nation’s financial markets that complicates the system without protecting it, a health policy overhaul that was opposed by every single Republican in Congress and remains stubbornly unpopular with the public.

Obama’s early promises to control the deficit and reduce the national debt have similarly gone unmet. In The Audacity of Hope he described with alarm “the most precarious budget situation that we’ve seen in years,” pointing to an “annual budget deficit of almost $300 billion” and a total government debt that “now stands at $9 trillion—approximately $30,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.” Under Obama’s watch, deficits have soared past $1 trillion every year, and the debt now clocks in at $15 trillion. 

The result of Obama’s agenda has not been increased unity but increased division, not increased civic togetherness but a rise in political disaffection. Polls show that partisan intensity has increased amongst those who pick a side in the Team Red/Team Blue squabbles. At the same time, more Americans are refusing to pick sides than at any time in the last 75 years, with 38 percent of adults describing themselves as independents in a June 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center.

Before becoming president, Obama always seemed to understand the small place of politics in ordinary life. In Audacity, he notes that while some voters are conversant in partisan talking points, “most were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics” and wanted only to be able to focus on that which mattered: jobs, families, and the rest of their everyday existence. Politics were a distraction from all that.

In one important way, Obama had Americans pegged. They were tired of politics as usual, tired of the endless cynical squabbling of the two parties. But the president’s solution was the opposite of what they actually wanted: not a single, unified story to replace the two competing narratives, but a flowering of individual narratives—an independence from politics rather than a greater connection with it.

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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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