How Obama seized the narrative
Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”
Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.
This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”
But now the president has a strong narrative arc: He is the protagonist who will stand up for what he believes in, battling the odds.
A dramatic character holds our attention based on what he wants—the “spine of a character” in a play is defined by a clear through-line of intention. For much of Obama’s first term, the American public — his audience — felt that he had lost his way.
The problem was that Obama, as president, had cast himself as consensus seeker or conciliator. This role took him out of the action of his own narrative.
Other characters were able to rush in to fill the narrative void. The contentious cast of Congress became the new focus of national attention. Obama, by deliberately sitting out the public debate on healthcare and letting Congress put together his signature legislation, lost sight of his goal.
This was surprising for many voters, who had been captured by the compelling drama of Obama’s 2008 campaign. As “candidate,” Obama understood his part was all about aspiration. His goal was clear — and there are built-in stations of conflict.
Obama’s personal story was so powerful, in fact, that he was able to vanquish a master of the narrative, Hilary Clinton. He skillfully defined himself as the brave, young combatant challenging a ruthless political machine.
Brash, bold and thrilling — Obama was the protagonist for a new American electorate. He reflected the character of a nation we wanted to be — diverse, young, hip and hopeful. Audacious.
But once the campaign’s dramatic arc was fulfilled, and Obama assumed the presidency, he did not have a new narrative to replace it.
Obama deliberately refused to put conflict on the table during the health care debate. He did not want to be defined as a fighter. The Republicans knew this—and maintained a one-sided battle, casting themselves as opponents willing to fight for their goals.
Obama lost more ground during the debt ceiling crisis. Rather than confront the opposition and the possibility of failure, conflict-weary Obama settled for a tired solution: He would agree to discuss it later.
In both these scenarios, it didn’t seem as if the dramatic stakes were high enough for Obama to take a risk. By playing the conciliator-in-chief, Obama created a role for himself that was fundamentally undramatic. He was no longer the star of his own narrative.
As his re-election neared, Obama continued to let the GOP define his leadership—even his back story. Birthers created an alternative-universe origin story for Obama, even accusing him of being part of a Manchurian Candidate-like socialist conspiracy. Obama had created the void that made room for this.
Meanwhile, a slew of Republican candidates were defining themselves. The GOP ultimately chose a nominee whose personal narrative was nimble enough to fit any prototype. Mitt Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch leadership qualities could fit any focus group.
Against this, Obama’s re-election campaign started without any new narrative. He could no longer use his 2008 aspirational language of “hope.” At best—he could attack Romney’s narrative.
A powerful surrogate finally gave Obama’s campaign its first real boost. Bill Clinton’s “comeback kid” narrative — crafted so carefully by his Hollywood pals — had served him through two campaigns, and also through the crises of his presidency. The narrative of “resiliency” is sometimes comic — but certainly always joyous, and fun to watch.
In Clinton’s final comeback, the former president ignited the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina. He presented a compelling new narrative line for Obama, focusing on his unfinished goals.
The turning point was in the first debate. The disengaged president conveyed the impression that he would rather be dining with his wife on their anniversary than addressing the electorate. The fatal question was raised: “Does he really want to be here?”
The failure of that first debate seemed to jar Obama into re-assuming a narrative he was comfortable with — as “candidate.” The dramatic sense of conflict was back, the race was on and the audience (the American public) energized.
He was again aspiring to something. Even those monitoring the statistics on Nate Silver’s 538.com blog felt the nerve-shaking tension of Obama as underdog. This new dramatic tension was so palpable that many Republicans seemed genuinely shocked when they didn’t win.
Obama won the narrative because he fought for the presidency. It now looks as if he is willing to extend that clarity of intention into his second term.
With the fiscal cliff looming, Obama’s new narrative features taking on the Republicans and fighting over tax increases for the top 2 percent. The president has embraced the drama of the ticking clock, which may make a showdown over the financial crisis as inevitable as the gunfight in High Noon.
Obama has found a way to extend his narrative into a template for leadership. He is again an audacious protagonist – and the focus of all our attention.
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama waves on stage at the University of Colorado in Denver, October 26, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (Insert Middle): President Barack Obama applauds former President Bill Clinton onstage after Clinton he nominated Obama for re-election during the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young