I was an avid follower of the 2008 elections because I was writing a book on the campaigns, using them as a case study in narrative critical method. If the contest was really a battle of stories, how could one elucidate the process and predict the result without reference to polls or focus groups? Maybe it was not so hard, but we predicted that as a story, Obama had to win. and even if he lost, he was the bigger story. He was the narrative heavy weight.
In my final chapter, I predicted that the glow of the Inauguration would last about a day. and I was not far wrong. The Republicans have convinced themselves that the best defense is attack and the President, taking the advice of his Chief of Staff, is impelled into action,not to waste this economic crisis.
We have huge stimulus bills to save the banks; we have energy bills to save the planet; we have plans to save the health care system, and we have a new deal in education. Any one of the above could be a lofty and honorable goal, but all four at once! It defies narrative logic.
Imagine writing a drama and having all the action in Act One. If you walk on water in Act One, what do you do for an encore, and more to the point, if your first Act bombs, what can you do to salvage it. You have gambled too big too early, before the cards are even shuffled. The adrenalin rush that new power brings is addictive but sometimes, one needs to go take a cold shower and patiently build energy through anticipation to ensure your most dramatic moves create the most drama. An administration needs to evolve and unfold like a great tale being told. You don’t rush the beginning. You build it up slowly, patiently, giving us time to imagine-what might happen next? “Once upon a time….” The most powerful weapon a President has is his power to command the nation’s attention and he can only sustain that by the way he lays out the story.
The Presidential Plot-my book- predicted that a young, fresh, Prince would steal the kingdom back from the cruel old King. That is how Disney and most traditional folk tales tell the story. But our young Prince needs to be wary of believing his own publicity, and committing that juiciest of sins in ancient drama, hubris. Oh what would tragedy be without good ole hubris. How the Greeks loved it. Just when you think you have conquered all, your own pride trips you up and you overreach. We as audience want to yell at the hero, “Don’t do it.Don’t do it” because we know that we have all done it.
When you have won so overwhelmingly and you have an approval rating off the charts, you could be forgiven for thinking this is all so easy. The world is my oyster, I can rebuild the kingdom and refurnish the palace at the same time, as well as drain the moat and repel the barbarians at the gate, and then, after lunch, I will slay the dragon and shoot a few hoops and cook a three course meal, and then, hold a G-20 summit after supper. And why waste a crisis? Let’s reform everything at once.
A story, as Obama the Candidate knew so well, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The ending he wants and needs most as President is Economic Recovery and he needs that no later than June 2012. Otherwise, he will not get a second term. So he has time, and the priority of the nation now is RECOVERY. Nothing else. That’s the story we are locked in.That is the story in which he as hero must play the unambiguous lead.
The nation has had a heart attack. We need shock treatment to get back on our feet. That is what everyone I know is obsessing about. They are not talking about the finer points of health care or charter schools, or wind and solar power. President Obama feels empowered but impatient-there is so much to be done, but his inexperience has trapped him into an urgency that threatens to dilute his focus. What makes political sense to him and his team does not make much sense to the nation. We only have the attention span to follow one BIG story at a time. FDR wanted us to defeat Hitler. Everything else was secondary to that and today, in a worried and confused nation, we need the ONE BIG story to unify the nation’s efforts.
Obama needs to get back to his ONE BIG story-economic recovery. That’s what his bully pulpit should be bullying us about, how he will lead the nation back. Only when that is securely underway should he introduce Act Two-REFORM, which is an even BIGGER story. Give us enough time and give that story enough space and we will get that too. Reform surely deserves its own full season of debate but don’t schedule it before February 2009.
When the patient is almost dead, you restart the heart. You don’t decide to throw in a face lift, a kidney transplant and a brain makeover. Why use up all the narrative fuel you need to keep your government dramatically compelling by spending it all at once and losing the impact that any one of these reforms could create on its own. The nation is not paying attention because the President’s solution sounds as messy and confusing as the problem.
Obama and his team are standing on their own best stories. He knew how to manage it in the campaign, but the object was clear. He wanted to win. Now, there are too many storylines, and people are not paying attention to anything but the economy. President Obama has had barely 8 weeks in the Oval Office but I fear he is being sucked into too much too soon, and into over promising what he cannot possibly be sure he can deliver. Why risk your credibility so soon?
So here is a memo to the narrative genius behind the President, David Axelrod. You took four years to prepare the Obama candidacy and get it focused and your Candidate was an amazing example of ONE disciplined storyline. He got it. Now that you have won power, the same lesson applies. What is the one BIG story you want the nation to absorb and act out of? We can only handle one BIG story at a time. Recovery AND reform is too much, and it is inherently contradictory. What you do to revive a patient is not what you do to get him back to fitness.
President Obama doesn’t have to keep making giant gestures. Just getting elected was enough inspiration to last us 6 months, and then a concerted effort at recovery. That makes sense. That’s a story that works. That will take at least 12-18 months. Recovery first, then reform. But if the overcrowded storyline of four BIG stories all at once doesn’t work, then nothing else will work and the President will have blown all his dramatic capital in one stunning opening act. It’s a tragedian’s dream. Like Rush Limbaugh, the Greeks wish failure on all their heroes because it is what makes a compelling story. But it should not be Obama’s story. We did not elect him for tragedy. Right now, the Obama team are perilously close to becoming narratively unintelligible. They won, but now they’re losing us and we can’t follow this presidential plot.