Obama’s narrative failing
Among liberals and Democratic-leaning voters, these have been dark days. The sense that their party — and their president — got played big time in the recent debt ceiling showdown has prompted much spleen venting and ruminating over what’s gone wrong with Barack Obama.
That meant Drew Westen’s essay, “What Happened to Obama,” in yesterday’s New York Times was destined to become a must-read, for it claims to offer an overarching explanation not only for the president’s supposed cave-in during the debt debate but for his entire wobbly presidency. The problem, the Emory University psychology professor tells us, is that Obama, though a gifted orator, is a lousy story teller, and story telling is the means by which great leaders lead and rally people to their cause:
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.
Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels, and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable.
Westen says, starting with Obama’s inaugural address, that the president needed to tell a compelling story of how unrestrained market capitalism, led by George W. Bush and his Wall Street cronies, had wrecked the economy, point out that there were real villains at fault, and point the way toward the reassertion of reasonable regulation and oversight that would be needed to right the economic ship. “But there was no story — and there has been none since,” writes Westen.
It’s an interesting, if at times ponderously long, read, and it’s easy to nod your head as you think about Obama’s seeming preference for conciliation over confrontation. Joe Klein says “a lot of us have been picking around the edges of the problem of Obama’s curiously unsatisfying presidency but Westen puts it all into context.”
But there has been plenty of blogosphere blowback. George Washington University’s John Sides says the problem starts with Westen’s premise that “presidential power is essentially rhetorical.” Sides says “there is precious little evidence that presidents accomplish much by rhetoric—least of all large shifts in public opinion. In fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens? It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.”
Meanwhile, this 2007 blog post by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan might be considered a sort of “buyer beware” warning to those drawn to the idea that Westen’s grand theory of the Obama universe explains it all.
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