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President Obama has not given up on his narrative. Campaigning in Ohio earlier this year, he wearily insisted that he could still deliver on his early promise, if only we would give ourselves over to the grand story he promised before. “Because I still believe, Ohio,” he said in May. “I still believe that we are not as divided as our politics suggest. I still believe that we have more in common than the pundits tell us; that we’re not Democrats or Republicans, but Americans first and foremost. I still believe in you, and I’m asking you to keep believing in me. That’s not how we built America. That’s not who we are.” That’s not who he is.
The Story of Obama
From an early age, Obama imagined a better story for himself than the world was willing to provide. In the summer of 2012, journalist David Maraniss released The Story of Obama, an exhaustively researched look at the president’s early life, including background on many of the individuals who make formative appearances in Dreams from My Father. What Maraniss finds is that many of the stories Obama tells in that book are not strictly true, in the journalistic sense, and several of the characters have been reimagined to the point that they scarcely resemble their real-life antecedents.
This is neither unprecedented in memoirs nor undisclosed in the book: In the introduction, Obama admits to taking certain literary liberties with the truth. Some of the characters are composites or have had details changed to protect their identities; some events are combined or placed out of order. But the degree to which Obama has rewritten his own past is still somewhat surprising. Regina, a black female friend he meets in college, is cast as a representative of the authentic black experience who evokes “a vision of black life in all its possibility.” The character turns out to be based on a white woman. His grandfather was not imprisoned and beaten by the British, as Obama claims. Nor was the father of his stepfather killed by the Dutch army during a battle for independence.
Many of the distortions that Maraniss chronicles are not there for the sake of convenience or compression, but for their symbolic value. The story that Obama told himself—and everyone else—was not the story that actually happened. It was the story that felt like it should be true.
‘Tell a Story to the American People’
Presidents are perpetually interviewing for their own job. And inevitably, they get asked some version of that ever-present job interview cliché: What’s your biggest flaw, your greatest mistake? Here’s how President Obama answered that question when it was posed by CBS talk show host Charlie Rose in July. “The mistake of my first term was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important, but, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
It was the politician’s version of the old businessman’s excuse: The problem isn’t the merchandise; it’s the marketing. And what that really means is that the problem isn’t bad management; it’s bad customers. The buyers just can’t see how great the product is.
Which may be the most revealing Obama degeneration of all. He could have said that he didn’t make any mistakes. He could have pointed to some piece of unpassed legislation that he didn’t manage to get through Congress. Instead, he talked about a failed narrative. He made all the right decisions, chose all the right policies, but the public just didn’t get it, so he’s just going to have to do a better job of rewriting history.
Stories are how Obama explains himself to the world. They’re how he explains the world to himself. And he admits as much. Speaking to Rose, Obama continued: “When I ran, everybody said, ‘Well, he can give a good speech, but can he actually manage the job?’ And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.”
It’s no surprise that Obama thinks his biggest flaw is insufficiently effective storytelling. He wanted to tell a story that would obliterate the past and remake the world of politics from whole cloth. But unlike his early days, he has to live with the facts he’s been given, the history he’s actually made, rather than the myth of his own creation. Obama’s greatest strength has always been his ability to tell an engaging tale, to imagine more powerful narratives for the people who inhabit his world. But he could never live up to the one he imagined for himself.