Obama: “What is my narrative”?
It was a question Obama all but shouted to his aides after getting a whiff of the upcoming disaster of 2010. As Suskind noted, it was a startling outburst- equivalent to Obama saying he didn’t know who he was. In Suskind’s 2010 interview of Obama for his book Confidence Men, the President said his first years taught him he had to do a better job at explaining his policies to the American people. Not just that- Obama stated that the one thing that a President could do was tell the national story. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan attempted some literary prestidigitation in her “Once Upon a Time in America” to suggest that leadership has little to do with the expert craft of storytelling that she, Tony Dolan and the others of the Reagan speechwriting team excelled at.
I have been highly critical of the inability of pundits to examine the literature of politics at a level any more serious than dismissive comments about messaging, spin and propaganda. Politics is transformed by a consistently communicated construction of social reality. Thomas Frank points this out in his book “Pity the Billionaire” (Truthout interview), but the theoretical foundations of the sociology of knowledge may be found in Durkheim’s work on collective representations, and Foucalt’s analysis of language and power. Is Obama fully engaged at this depth or not? It is illuminating to consider a concrete comparison between specific events where Reagan succeeded at such transformative construction, and where Obama consistently fails, declining to place events in the context of a new narrative arc for the nation.
Obama has stated his goal is to be a transformational president in the way that Reagan was. America’s citizens understood that Reagan was asking them to join a revolution, a change in direction. He consistently constructed a reality with clear stories communicating the libertarian ethos of unleashing (what turned out to be Henry F. Potter) wealth creators by reducing the taxes and regulations they were constrained by. This formed the structure of the era that the “Reagan revolution” ushered in. 2008 provided ample ammunition to demonstrate the resulting the reality we all live in is a sad failure. Will there be a transformational end to this era? What new story will be told? Will the old story be cast in terms of Pottersville? Obama has had 4 years to communicate whatever the new narrative arc is, but let’s be honest. America has no idea what the Obama revolution is, let alone if he intends one.
Let’s me state that again. Americans- progressives included- simply don’t have any perception that they are participating in anything corresponding to the Reagan revolution, or are even able articulate what the Obama revolution might be. This is not to say that Obama’s approach to Washington in his first term was not revolutionary, or that revolutionary things did not happen. So am I splitting hairs? Why does it matter whether people actually understand whatever the Obama transformation is? Is it sufficient to enumerate the factual points how institutions have undertaken incremental reforms?
The fact is that the President has fallen far short of his goal of communicating a national story and he knows it. Obama has performed a pragmatic assessment and has come to a sober conclusions about these questions. He has shifted his strategy in response to the impasse with Congress in August 2011 and is willing to cast dramatic contrasts with his opponents. But he has not yet grasped his failure of narration. His recess appointments could be presented as “manning the barricades” of regulatory agencies at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the National Labor Relations Board. They are technocratically sound and politically practical initiatives in response to a public interest, and that is the extent of the language he uses. What does America understand about the larger narrative context of these events? Unlike a Reagan speech, America has no idea.
So let’s consider a specific example: Obama’s speech nominating Cordray. (Transcript and video here) What is the literary structure? Is Cordray to man the barricades in some sort of Paris Commune motif, or is America revolting against the thuggery of Wall Street and America’s heroes like Cordray are the regulatory Cops on the beat? Did you detect any tropes of some sort of binding national narrative here?
Elizabeth Warren certainly is thinking and communicating in terms of a larger drama, but you get no whiff of it in Obama’s speeches. You heard plenty of it in Zucotti park, but not coming from the mouth of the President. The president tells stories of the isolated biographies of individual suffering and triumph, but they are alienated from any binding national story of change.
The simple fact is that the only faction using the tropes of revolution is the Right. Obama is not calling on people to man the barricades, or any other motif of change. That’s not the narrative at all. In Alinsky fashion, the structure of his speech is that he has identified a self interest and delivered a technocratic policy response to it. There is no communication that this event represents the beachhead of a larger struggle. The public is not aware that they and Cordray are united as part of something much larger than themselves, and how Obama as their leader is moving America to that great goal. The narrative, if there is one, is solely one of mechanism- Technocratic elites identify concrete interests and service the public by fixing them.
If the Right has been allowed to maintain a monopoly on the tropes of revolution, what revolution is the Right defending? It is the one that created this alternate Pottersville reality for America- one where members of unions voted against their interests, where America’s unemployed and poor of Appalachia, Mississippi and Texas consistently vote for people who keep them poor. This was the Reagan revolution. It is a reality whose advocates recognize that Obama and the Occupy movement represent an existential threat. They strike out with survivalist fervor, vigorously denying that the meltdown devastated their discursive account of reality. The Tea Party is not alone among conservative voices that deny everything, claiming that the problem was we didn’t go far enough- that efforts at deregulation and privatization efforts were thwarted.
As a counterpoint to Obama’s speech, consider an economic speech during a difficult economic period in Reagan’s first term (for example, this one). You are introduced to the complete context of an alternative account of reality. This is not about individual stories illustrating self interest as in Obama’s speech, what you have is the big picture.
- Reagan does not literally express sympathy with the frustration of the “average working stiff”- a phrase Obama uses. He mouths the cynicism about their president their situation. If the storyteller does not provide a frame for these emotions, these forces will do to Reagan’s administration what happened to Carter. By channeling the platitude into a familiar and non acidic platitude about the weather the speechwriter provides a safety valve. Maybe complaining is like expecting the president to do something about natural forces like the weather that adults must simply accept? This simple platitude is directed at the sense of malaise- that natural forces are causing America to be in decline, a decline that shall cause us all to all be a nation of losers. It is a storyline that Carter approached literalistically. Reagan’s speechwriters understand that intended truth telling of that approach tells a falsehood to the heart of the nation.
- Next, the the platitude that represents the defeatism is swept aside in a casual fashion. Decisive action is being taken. The leader is on the job.
- More importantly, this is a call to service. Americans want to do something big, to be part of something big. The leader is offering America to do something larger than their own private world of problems. The president is talking to them because they are not unimportant losers. They can help out.
- How does he keep the audience awake through a speech on an abstract subject? Give voice to their emotion about the confusion. Though he sympathizes that this sounds complicated, their is a secondary reason for directly engaging the listener with “you can help us do something about it”. Here is the pedagogical technique of anchoring the abstract in the personal. The speechwriter has inoculated the President against quickly losing the attention of the audience despite abstract material because the listener is motivated to understand what the President is asking them to do.
- Next comes introduction of the cast of characters but take note of the compactness of the conversation. Only a few sentences have passed so far and a lot of structure has been constructed. The writer has so much to say, but great writing observes a strict economy of words. Besides the cognitive reason for this, there is a practical one. The listener will give you 30 seconds, so be sure you get the key messages out that either get your foot in the door, or if not provide them something to think more about. So: to continue with the cast of characters: First the villian(s). There are mysterious opponents out there that don’t want their names known. The reason this sounds so complicated is these nefarious forces are telling stories that aren’t so. Actually, the news stories about what Reagan was proposing were literally true, but they weren’t being explained to the people in a way that made sense to them. That’s what the speech was about. This story doesn’t mean Reagan intends to lie about it- if you doubt this, skip forward to “swallowing hard”. Reagan’s budget director Stockman pointed out much later that the 1982 budget they got approved (this speech was part of that effort) raised taxes by 1.2 percent. To this day, this makes the heads of conservatives explode (Example denial by Cantor). The reason for this denial is the strength of the construction of the alternate reality Reagan and his speechwriters created.
- It is mentioned the audience need not be reminded of the President’s name and authority. Here is the modest but earnest and iron willed Sheriff. Don’t be confused about such “reports” in the media. Listen to the voice of authority. Your President.
- The audience? Well of course you know who you are- this is confusing but you townfolk are smart and informed. And you are falling for the lies from the bad guys.
- Now, the bad guys with selfish “Interests” are resisting our revolution against the status quo. Unlike you, they think only of themselves.
- And so on and so forth. How does this conclude? How can the American people help? “You can help again—whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent…Do we tell these Americans to give up hope, that their ship of state lies dead in the water because those entrusted with manning that ship can’t agree on which sail to raise?” Reagan asks them to pressure their congresspersons to vote for his measure.
I’m not asserting that only B movie scripts work for the American public, or that these specific narremes would work today. Reagan worked with what he knew. My view is that Americans are sophisticated consumers of stories and can handle story lines with higher art than this.
If Obama wants people to understand how the CFPB is part of America’s transformation, he is going to have to communicate the narrative. Did his speech in any way communicate that this is a revolution? Did he ask people to help or involve them in any way? Do the people understand the plot structure? Do they know who they are in this struggle, who the President is, and who the “bad guys” are?
No. Because Obama thinks that telling unambiguous stories is divisive. Wrong wrong wrong. The nation is unified by getting the public to jointly enter the newly constructed reality. One that he needs their help building. The time is right for a paradigm shift. The story that the right is telling is that the prior conservatives failed because they were held back. Obama can provide a story line that frames the facts in a much more convincing way: that old (Reagan) deregulated reality was a fantasy. 2008 proved it.
Obama could do something, but up until to now he has continued to refuse to communicate the drama of the new reality, that there is a new era he is ushering in.
Will he continue to be “No Drama” Obama, or will he rise to transform America as only a charismatic president with his intelligence can? Obama’s Osawatomie speech presented 55 minutes of excellent argument for a binding narrative (Transcript and video here). The president is well aware of the competition between ideas and the historical dimensions. To be sure, there is great drama in the pageant of ideas in this speech, but that which makes a devastating argument in political science does not magically create in the minds of the public a transformational narrative arc for the nation. As Obama observed, “Carter, Clinton and I have sort of the disease of being policy wonks.”* Right. Someone sort through this mass of ideas and tell me what the binding narrative is? We hear a story about Teddy Roosevelt, the generic story of the aspirations for a middle class life, a repetition of the story of the meltdown, the story of workers pressed by outsourcing and automation. Lots of stories, but please, a national narrative is not an anthology of short stories. How do these tie together- what is the overall national story, and how do all these subplots fit into it? There must be a clear and sharp boundary between the reality conjured by Reagan’s narrative for the nation and that being proposed by Obama. What we have now is a good analytical basis for a story, but no story upon which a new reality may be constructed. It is what a paper on depression era finance would be to the story of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
We have casting for the various nemesis’ but who are the protagonists? Obama knows who we are. Deep down, he knows who he is. He has always had the heart for service, as did his mother. George is not about pursuing his self interest- if that was who he was then he would have left Bedford Falls long ago. And the people of his home town ultimately were not about self interest either. Deeply, they want to be part of something much larger than themselves, and they are persuaded to by George to follow that way rather than do what is in their best short term best interest- sell to Potter. Philosophically, that is what is wrong about the rugged individualism of the Reagan Revolution and the neoliberal collaborators who have bought into that reality and still buy into it despite the meltdown. That is what was wrong about the breakdown of the community fabric in Altgelt Gardens where Obama first worked as an organizer. The reason that churches like Reverend Wrights provided the missing component was that we are about something larger than ourselves. That is what is missing in Alinksy. Individually, he tells us we are about self interest, and that is what gets us off our seats. But where does he habitually go to find a core of supporters? Places like churches that tell people there is something larger than them that is not simply the collective intersection of their individual sets of selfish desires. We are a nation of many beliefs, but there is that common notion of pulling together to help others- our heart for service that is at the core of who we are in Obama’s emergent narrative. Capra made that clear in his story. Obama so far has not.
If it unfair to accuse the Obama administration of incompetent narration? If so, try and explain the phrase “Leading from Behind”. It is a technically accurate phrase from one point of view but the word choice indicates a complete lack of control of language, excluding unintended meanings, the most obvious of which in this particular phrase are self defeating. These unintended meanings suggest a number of political falsehoods about the narrative arc. This is the kind of writing ineptness forgivable from internal technocrats, but it is not forgivable from those in the White House whose job is to represent the national narrative- a task that Obama feels is a crucial responsibility of the office of the Presidency. Those responsible need to be able to clearly communicate the fidelity of that narrative arc and not unintended meanings.
Will Obama finally build a sufficiently sized and capable team of speechwriters who understand that a plot is more than set of Alinsky notes anthologizing individual stories? Obama’s writing style is interesting but it is about deep exploration of truth within disparate stories not an assertion of a collective story. The hubris of Obama as a writer is that his exploratory hammer is the best tool for every job. Writing the national narrative instead requires clear and consistent assertions about the binding collective narrative- the assertion of how we are part of that larger story that he believes only the President can tell. It is an assertion of an alternate reality of who we are and what endeavor guides the action of the collective story. So fundamentally, Obama needs more than someone like Lovett to add levity, or ex Kerry writer Favreau who mostly amplifies Obama’s wonkish proclivities. Obama needs writers who speak to the heart of service that lies at the heart of all Americans. This is not a decent into the tribalism of a leftist national narrative versus the conservative narrative. It is a unity narrative, a reality we can all #Occupy- it is at the heart of a Huntsman or a McCain- the heroes on the right and left who put “Country first”- that is- the good of all first.
Until Obama recognizes this limitation he will be unable to tell the collective story that binds us all together. And he shall fail to serve the country and transform it out the Pottersville reality we now live in.
* Carter /Clinton Wonk disease: (as quoted by Suskind in “Confidence Men” kindle location 10497)
Posted on 2012-01-09, in 2012 Elections, Barack Obama, collective consciousness, Durkheim, Elizabeth Warren, language, logos, narratives, Obama governance, Reagan, reality bending, swarm. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.