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.
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.
And people need politicians who aren’t post-modern, post-partisan or post-anything. In fact, they need politicians who are passionate and clear. Many of us wanted our president to tell us a story with a vision of an America that takes care of all its citizens. A country that requires everybody to pay his fair share. And that what we need is not a fight about the debt ceiling but a plan to stimulate the economy.
He needed to start telling this story last fall: Americans need jobs. The economy isn’t working, and it’s not because of our deficits. It’s because of the housing crisis. And we never made the villains from that scandal pay. If the economy can’t create jobs, we have to help it. We have to pay for additional stimulus with real cuts and real revenue. Because people with jobs pay taxes, they need less government support, and together, that reduces the deficit.
But the only story we heard has been told simply and clearly over and over again by a group of politicians that knows how to edit out complications. Their story is that America is spending its way to disaster. The enemy is Democrats who believe in entitlements and bigger government. And public enemy No. 1 is President Obama who wants to create a European-style socialist government. The people telling the story are the heroes who are willing to do the unpopular, principled thing. Even if it costs us our jobs. There’s only one answer – cut spending. And they’ll sacrifice anything for that one principle.
Now that’s a story. It’s not the right story, but it’s the only clear story we heard.
America is big enough for two stories. And I hope our Story Teller in Chief finds the plot soon and tells us a story we can believe in, a story a majority of the country can rally around.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.