Obama needs a story line for the nation
In his effort to be post-partisan Obama has lacked a clear, compelling narrative for the American people. The only story we've heard is the GOP tale of spending cuts and big government. Our Story Teller in Chief needs to find the plot.
When I was a young man, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to tell stories. So I became an English major. Seemed logical, but the problem was I fell for the modernists, writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner. They eschewed plots and story arcs. They used stream of consciousness. There were no heroes and no villains. Just flawed humans.Skip to next paragraph
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It took me years and lots of failed stories to understand that they weren’t telling stories at all; they were doing to stories what the abstract painters did to representational painting. As a result, their stories couldn’t be retold. In the end, well, there was no end.
Which reminds me of a recent story called The Debt Crisis. The story I wanted to hear President Obama tell during the last few months was never told. He offered no plot line. No story arc. There were no heroes and no villains. Just flawed humans mucking around in a complicated world. He didn’t resort to stream of consciousness like Joyce (he has speech writers, after all), but there was no story line the majority of Americans could hold on to and retell around the water cooler.
Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” makes this point brilliantly in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Aug 7 New York Times. He makes a case that the stories our leaders tell are as important as their policies. And that Mr. Obama, arguably the most accomplished writer to sit in the Oval Office, has failed miserably at providing a narrative, not just during the debt crisis but throughout his presidency.
But why? Mr. Westen, a psychologist, attributes much of it to Obama’s temperament – "choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation." But I think it’s more than that. I think Obama wanted to reinvent politics. He wanted to be a post-partisan president. He put that goal above clarity and principle. In fact, it became his principle. And the American people weren’t ready for that. We may never be ready for that.
We weren’t ready for James Joyce either. And while the modernists and post-modernists expanded the tools novelists could use, they couldn’t kill the story. Seventy years after the publication of “Finnegan’s Wake,” the stories we read and love still have heroes and villains and beginnings, middles, and endings. People still crave stories with a clear point of view.