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. 

He spends a lot of time telling the stories of the people he met: his extended family, the residents of Altgeld, his buddies and acquaintances at Columbia. Obama doesn't use these people to talk much about policy or conventional political maneuvering, eschewing even obvious opportunities to do so. The daily grind of politics doesn't seem to drive him; actual human beings do. Along with the literary sensibility, it's probably the most appealing thing about his first book.

On those occasions when Obama does talk about politics, it's mostly to register unease or reduced expectations, and the focus is almost always local and personal. In his early days at Altgeld, he recognizes that he and the people he represented didn't "yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools." But they could "begin to improve basic services in Altgeld—get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." It wasn't about changing the world; it was about fixing the toilets. "I don't like politics so much," he recalls his sister saying, perhaps portentously. "People always end up disappointed."

The Audacity of Hope

Much of Obama's famous, career-vaulting speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 was cobbled together from elements in Dreams from My Father. Again, Obama put himself at the center of the story, explicitly weaving himself into the larger national narrative. "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story," he declared. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." He wasn't just writing his own story any more, he was writing one for the whole country, with himself as the protagonist.

But as Obama's ambitions grew, so did the size and scope of his political expectations. And the stories he began to tell no longer served the individuals they were about, but the conventional political and policy goals he espoused. Early reservations about politics began to disappear, replaced by grander, self-centered narratives and promises to match.

Unlike its predecessor, Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, is a fairly conventional politician's tome. Released in the autumn of 2006 as the senator was gearing up for a long-planned presidential run, Audacity splits time between explaining Obama's basic outlook on life and politics, and talking about political issue areas that motivate him. Unlike his first book, it's designed more for mass appeal than literary kudos. There's nothing punk rock about it.

With its early invocations of touchstones that would define Obama's first presidential term—health care, corporate jets, Warren Buffett's taxes—the book often reads like a demo tape for the Obama presidency, laying out what have since become familiar riffs.  It also predicts some of his failures.

One of Obama's most oft-repeated fears is becoming a conventional politician, a compromised careerist who lives only for power, prestige, and reelection. Versions of this anxiety appear throughout Audacity. When Obama gets to Washington as a United States senator in 2004, he finds himself sympathizing with legislators he might have previously viewed as sellouts, and wonders if he'll follow the same path, "transforming into the stock politician of bad TV movies."

As he closes out the book's introduction, he recalls a journalist asking him if he could be as interesting with his second book as he was with his first, which he takes to mean as a question of whether he could be as honest. He admits to wondering the same. Tellingly, he implies that we'll know if he has changed not by his actions, but by his words. "How long," he asks himself, "before you started sounding like a politician?" The transformation had already begun.

The lyricism of Dreams is mostly gone by Audacity, replaced with banal lists of binary pairs. He imagines, for example, people "waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don't always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting." He goes on like this, back and forth, on the first hand and on the second, seeing one perspective and then its opposite, viewpoint A and viewpoint B, until you are ready to thwack him, on the left side of his head and then on the right, with a perfectly balanced Styrofoam scale of justice.

Obama insists in Audacity that he will take a "pragmatic" approach to policymaking, navigating a course between the "false or cramped choices" (later shorted to the simpler "false choices" that would pock his presidential speechifying) that create "political polarization." Yet his very word choices suggest that his preferences are anchored near the pole of modern Democratic thought. In the Obama lexicon, there's no such thing as "funding" for science and infrastructure, there are only "investments," usually in our future. Debates over education policy, he writes, are "stuck between those who want to dismantle the public school system and those who would defend an indefensible status quo, between those who say money makes no difference in education and those who want more"—a convenient but false choice of his own creation.

But Audacity does retain some of Dreams from My Father's façade of humility and superficial wariness about asking too much from the political system. Obama still writes as if he is keenly aware that most people don't really like politics and don't have any desire to make it the focal point of their lives. He starts the book by declining to offer either a "unifying theory of American government" or "a manifesto for action." Instead, he writes, "What I offer is something more modest: personal reflections on those values and ideals that have led me to public life, some thoughts on the ways that our current political discourse unnecessarily divides us, and my own best assessment…of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good." When he actually starts to make demands of government, they turn out to be a little bigger than his aw-shucks introduction suggests. But he still starts from an assumption there's only so much politics can, or should, do.

Obama was already well into his political career when he wrote Audacity, with multiple terms in the Illinois legislature and a partial term in the U.S. Senate under his belt. So it's understandable that there's far more discussion of policy this time around. But he still evinces concern with others' stories, and he often stops to offer succinct character portraits and recollections of conversations with constituents. He suggests that their experiences are the guideposts by which he makes policy decisions. Empathy, he writes, "is at the heart of my moral code," serving as "a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."

It's prose, not poetry, a politician's calling card rather than an evocative literary memoir. But it still retains a vague sense of self-awareness and self-questioning, some interest in lives and perspectives outside of his own. Even that, however, was rapidly slipping away.

Probably the most frequent rhetorical tic Obama displays is an obsession with creating the appearance of even-handedness. Early in The Audacity of Hope, he offers a half-apology for his lack of partisan balance, admitting up front that he is in fact a Democrat, just in case anyone failed to notice. But even this apology has to be draped in a veneer of partisan balance: Right after, he proceeds to list all the ways in which Republicans are kinda-sorta-theoretically right about lots of things, even though they're obviously also deeply wrong and need to be stopped before they continue driving the bus of state into the ditch.

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.

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.