It’s no secret that popular media has served dutifully as Obama White House megaphone. What is less remarked upon is the extent to which messaging moves in the opposite direction. Barack Obama has repeatedly come around to echoing the assessments and slogans furnished by his support network in the mainstream press, especially at key moments for his legitimacy.
In June 2011, he told the country of his controversial plan for drawing down troops in Afghanistan and announced his vision for “nation building at home,” a formulation pushed repeatedly by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman since Obama took office. More recently he sought a defense of his presidency in the claim that while his policies have been sound, he has failed to “tell a story” about those policies that could inspire the American people. This bit of literary analysis has long been on offer from numerous Obama boosters throughout the mainstream.
If it’s dangerous to believe one’s own press, surely it’s worse to preach it. The notion that Obama has failed at National Story Hour is a product of a supportive but worried punditry that wants him to tell the story they long to hear from him. That story has a comforting narrative whose arc would start at countrywide introspection, move gently upwards to pragmatically informed policy, and come down at a restored national project. Unlike Obama’s truly ecstatic fans outside of seasoned media, those inside have never wanted a miracle tale. Leaders who promise miracles think themselves miracle workers, and Obama’s mainstream enthusiasts have staked their credibility on his being a new kind of moderate–one in unfortunate and inconsequential radical dress. Therefore, the story has to be reasonable and balanced. Thus Friedman’s latest column, suggesting Obama articulate “a narrative worthy of America in the 21st century, one that ties together the new world in which we’re living with our traditional strengths and a set of policies for enhancing them.”
One can dream. But as I was once advised, you cannot make people say what they don’t want to say.
Obama hasn’t merely told his own story. He’s composed an epic, a thematically coherent anthology of fantastic interwoven tales. The Obama epic culminates in the birth of a new America, whose redemption lay in the final renunciation of its exceptional character and embrace of benevolent social democracy. It is the story of a republic transformed, broken of its reckless and hypocritical obsession with personal liberty and repurposed as a kindly nation of “brother’s keepers.” It is not coincidental that Obama has a Lincoln Complex. President Lincoln is sometimes said to have “re-founded” postbellum America—so Obama has sought to do in his time.
Connecting the “spread the wealth” preamble of the 2008 campaign to the Buffet Rule’s revenge fable to the promises of “The Life of Julia” to the “you didn’t build that” morality tale of business development is an overarching narrative so clear and pure it should be taught in writing class. The government will help all Americans prosper. First, that means getting money from the richest among us who won’t miss it. That money is to be used to furnish Americans with federal assistance in a great many areas of life, from birth to death. Ultimately, what successful Americans view inaccurately as theirs was partly attained with government help and is therefore partly the government’s to redistribute.
That is, without editorializing, Obama’s story for the American people. He has stuck to it faithfully. It is not the story his pundit supporters in the “pragmatist” camp want. So they ignore, reinterpret, or deny it as circumstance dictates.
But most Americans don’t share this need for denial. In fact, many Americans these days can’t afford it. Not only are they not inspired by the Obama narrative, but they find it a little scary. To business owners, it sounds dire. And all Americans can’t help but notice the gap between the Obama story and the Obama record. If government initiative is so crucial to our future well being, why is Obamacare so chaotic? If government spending is fundamental to prosperity, why did an $800-billion stimulus keep us in a recession without producing one identifiable public work? In short, if government can deliver things we never dreamed of having, why can’t it simply restore what we had four years ago?
The story doesn’t fit the facts. The pundits know it and deny it. Americans know it and worry. The president? He built it.