The New Yorker of 15 March has a fascinating article by George Packer, called “Obama’s lost year”. Packer traverses the political and strategic mistakes that the president has made, the opportunities he has lost over the past twelve months. [Sorry – there’s no hyperlink to the full article unless you’re a paying subscriber]
Inevitably, one of the issues that Packer discusses is Obama’s failure to craft a narrative and tell the American people a story about what he is doing, and why he is doing it.
“Phrasemaking, throughlines, frameworks and narratives simply aren’t the stuff of the Obama press office.”
Packer draws some important contrasts between Obama and Ronald Reagan, another president who ran into big economic and political problems in his first year. In so doing, Packer shows us what makes a political narrative work.
“Reagan could recover from battlefield setbacks because he was fighting a larger war. His talent for phrasemaking and anecdote derived from having a strong world view: unlike Obama, he began with a set of ideas and found the evidence to match them and the words to dramatize them.”
The article goes on to quote the leading Democratic political consultant, Paul Begala:
“[Reagan’s] point of departure was always philosophical. He explained how the world works. Roosevelt did the same thing.” [emphasis added]
Reagan blamed the nation’s woes on “decades of tax and tax and spend and spend”.
Later in the article, top Democratic pollster Geff Garin develops the same point and shows the crucial role that characters – heroes and villains –play in political stories.
“Reagan had a kind of robust narrative with real explanatory power for people. He had a political narrative that told people what he was doing and what the Democrats were doing: a narrative which is available to Obama: Jimmy Carter left the country in a mass, we’re making changes that are painful now but if we stay the course they’ll succeed, and why would anyone want to go back?” [emphasis added]
Notice also how Reagan’s story offered two alternative endings, one good, one bad, and left people to work the rest out for themselves.
During the last presidential election campaign, I wrote a lot on my blog about Obama’s gifts as a teller of stories. In fact, I unpretentiously named him the political storyteller of the year for 2008. But Packer is correct: as president, he has not rendered the country’s story in a way that is memorable and convincing. To quote Paul Begala: “[Obama] doesn’t situate it in a philosophy.”
No, a political narrative is not the same thing as an ideology. But the experiences of Reagan and Obama show that a successful narrative must be based firmly on a coherent set of ideas.
As Packer puts it:
“To be an effective communicator, a President needs a strong world view, a fundamental vision of why things are and the way they ought to be, which can be simplified into a few key ideas and images – in short, an ideology. For Obama and his advisers, there is no worse pejorative.”
The narrative, the story is the most powerful tool that a politician has to explain those ideas, convey the images and make them real to people.