Saturday, January 26, 2013

President Obama on the importance of telling the story

Yesterday I wrote about the current conversation taking place on whether or not President Obama is changing the trajectory of the Reagan revolution. Given that I'm the kind of person who naturally gravitates towards the big picture and long game, this whole question fascinates me. As I said yesterday, there is a meme developing on this one. And those are the kinds of things that have the potential to shape our thinking for years to come. So bear with me while I dig a little deeper.

One of the people who expressed a dissenting view from the left on this topic is Jonathan Bernstein. Here's his conclusion.
Add it all up and Obama, if he wants to be a president who really changes things for the better, should … well, it’s boring and obvious, but he should mostly focus on promoting good public policy. Not fighting the good fight or talking the good talk for liberal ideals, but just getting done whatever he can get done given all the constraints that surround him. Well-implemented plans will be hard for subsequent presidents to displace. And presidents who make good policy tend to be popular, thereby ensuring that partisans seek to replace them (not only immediately, but into the future) with similar candidates. In other words, he should pretty much focus on being a good president, and let the rest of it take care of itself. No, it’s not as exciting as imagining that Obama can win arguments for a generation by choosing exactly the right words at the right time—but no one, certainly not Ronald Reagan, could do that. And it does have the benefit of being how politics really works.
On one level, I agree with Bernstein. For a long time now I've been saying that the best way to advance the liberal agenda is through good government. But even Bernstein focuses most of his argument on passing good legislation and tends to give short shrift to the equally important work that is supposed to be the main role of the President - which is to administer good government.

Overall, this is something President Obama did very well in his first term (especially the first 2 years). He not only got monumental legislation passed (ie, stimulus, universal health care, Wall Street reform), he also reassured Americans that government can work (ie, rescuing the auto industry, FEMA, etc.)

But many of the President's critics suggested that it felt piecemeal...that he didn't tie it all together with a liberal vision. As much as some of us fought that criticism (rightfully so when it came in the idiotic version of people like Drew Westen), President Obama has suggested they had a point.

"When I think about what we've done well and what we haven't done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right," Obama said. "And that's important. But 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."

Obama acknowledged that he could have been better at "explaining" matters, but also "inspiring" the American people.

"It's funny — when I ran, everybody said, 'Well, he can give a good speech, but can he actually manage the job?' " Obama continued. "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."
From his speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention with its focus on citizenship to his suggestion that Washington will only change from the outside to the re-formation of Organizing for Action to his inaugural address, you see President Obama putting that awareness into practice.

Yes, he has to get the policy right. But he also knows that in order to tap into the fact that the American people are ready for change, he has to provide a vision of where we are going...together.
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.


  1. Well, you go right to the important quote, which is what popped into my own head. I myself am someone who has underestimated the importance of narrative, and of shaping narrative as a form of action. I came up in school when narrative structures were pooh-poohed as old fashioned, and it was all about being cool with post-modern tropes and things like that.

    What I didn't understand was how important it is for us as people to find language to express not only what we know, but what we imagine for ourselves. Language needs context for meaning, and narrative provides that context. Not just language in the strictest sense, either, but all of our structures of meaning, including policy.

    Obama's second term is clearly going to be all about hammering home the idea of "we're all in this together" until it's normalized in our discourse. That sense of normal, which narrative produces, entirely conditions what is possible in terms of policy.

    I would say in this context that if our narrative context had been "we're all in this together" the President would have passed single payer, gladly.

    1. Good to "see" you Bill. Hope all is well.

      The "we're all in this together" was what scarred the shit out of Republicans during the election. They tried - and failed - to challenge it by going after the "you didn't build that" frame.

      One of the things that impressed me early on about Obama was his talk about the idea that we have an "empathy deficit." It was a way of talking about the problem that "we're all in this together" is trying to solve. Its as much about changing culture as it is about changing politics.

      And I love the idea of narrative normalizing the ideals to set the tone for what's possible. In that way - if Obama can pull this off - his legacy will far outreach his 2nd term.

    2. All is indeed well. For some reason, I've had no desire to write at all lately. Been sort of busy, played a ton of music, and been hitting my meditation. I like to write (comments count, to me) but the truth is that it's not a priority.

      Keep it up. I feel like I'm going back into a participatory phase.

  2. I believe the president knew that he didn't have a lot of time to get things done. He knew the GOP was going to obstruct 100%. He really didn't have time to come up with a story. That would've just been him giving the beltway something else to bullshit with. So he got with the party leaders to push through as much as they could. Obama's one of the most gifted politicians to come out in a while. I doubt there's much anyone could have done to counteract that kind of opposition. He had to say that bigoted morons weren't bigoted morons. He had that dumbass press core propping up the same bigoted morons. There's the dilettante squad that drowned out anything reasonable. Then, you have people in your party that refused to act right. Those gray hairs tell me quite a bit.



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