The Obama Watch

The Strange Case of the ‘Missing Narrative’

Why are people rebelling against Barack Obama? Frank Rich and the flat-earther Tom Friedman have an interesting theory.

By 3.19.10

Like a Santa Claus or Easter Bunny on steroids, Barack Obama has been spending our hard-earned money faster than any president in the history of the Republic. So where's the sense of gratitude on our part? Why don't we welcome this wastrel into our minds and hearts? Why do we rebel against the gifts he insists we have?

In pondering these questions, two of the mightiest minds at the New York Times have come a startling conclusion. According to Frank Rich and Tom Friedman, it has nothing to do with the fact that most people strongly reject Obamacare…and the further fact that many of us are worried sick that that the president and his cohorts in Congress seem to be intent on propelling the country into bankruptcy. Rather, the president has yet to discover "a compelling narrative."

Imagine that! The most loquacious president of all time just can't seem to grasp that story-telling thingy! The trillion-dollar puddings that he is serving up -- whether it is Obamacare, the next stimulus or cap and trade -- don't seem to have any real theme (unless it is socialism, and even the progressives have noticed that the American people despise the idea of socialism).

It wasn't long ago that the same two pundits and others of their ilk were lauding our 44th president as the greatest orator since Abraham Lincoln. And he has never ceased to orate. In just one year, Barack Obama may have given more speeches and interviews than all the other presidents, combined.

Nevertheless, Messrs. Rich and Friedman would have us believe that Mr. Obama has somehow lost the precious gift that served him so well throughout his campaign for the presidency: knowing how to tell a compelling story that commands attention and gives substance and form to his leadership. What a turnabout! Why and how did it happen? And what does the president need to do to get his Mojo back?

Rich, the former drama critic, used to accuse of George W. Bush and John McCain of "truthiness" -- a typically arch and feeble attempt at humor on his part (the late Richard Neuhaus called Rich "an attack poodle"). In 2008 Rich wrote that McCain's campaign strategy was "to envelop the entire presidential race in a thick fog of truthiness…. McCain, Sarah Palin and their surrogates keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it."

Not much more than a year later, Rich has been reduced to making "haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing" the growing fog around the Obama presidency. Surprise, surprise, he tells us that Mr. Obama is being too pragmatic, delving too deeply into the weeds of policy issues. What he really needs is "an overarching narrative." Rousing himself to heights of clarity and passion not normally seen outside of high school yearbooks, Mr. Rich writes: "To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that's built from his bedrock convictions."

No intellectual laggard either, the college-educated Friedman, who developed his celebrated theory that the earth is flat while spending spent a lot of time in hot, dusty, out-of-the-way places like Yemen and Zimbabwe, agrees with his esteemed colleague that the president must find an answer to the "'narrative' problem." It is really a PR problem, in Mr. Friedman's considered opinion: "He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected."

Fortunately for the president, Friedman happens to have the answer in his hip pocket: "What is the narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America."

Like Lincoln Steffens, the journalist who pronounced "I have seen the future and it works" upon his return from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1921, Mr. Friedman has seen how "nation-building" works in Communist China and he is mightily impressed. He has also seen how nation-building works in some of the most violent and undeveloped countries in the world. So why shouldn't it work right here at home?

One possible answer to that question might be that the United States already is a viable nation. It has been so for more than 200 years. We have a constitution that actually works pretty well, or at least it did until quite recently.

Who knows, though -- maybe Friedman is onto something. Maybe we are witnessing the birth of a new "narrative" for Mr. Obama and America -- one that says to hell with persuasion and to hell with conformity to the law and democratic process. Has the time come for the United States to adopt the Chinese method of nation-building through government dictate? From their brazen attempt to circumvent the Constitution in order to move the hugely expensive and wildly unpopular health care legislation through Congress, it appears that Mr. Obama and leading Democrats have come to that conclusion.

It is a pity that Mr. Obama has been energized into a new state of belligerency and contempt for all those who do not blindly and subserviently follow his lead. To engage in something of a fantasy, it would be nice to think he would go back and study the Santa Claus story with an eye to understanding the narrative elements that account for its huge and enduring popularity. He could definitely learn from them.

The real Santa in children's minds actually listens and asks them what they want. Santa and his elves may be "watching" but they don't interfere to keep children from being bad. There's the real drama in the story. To earn a just reward children learn from an early age that they must begin to take responsibility for their own actions. And finally, Santa, the gift-giver, comes only once a year. He's not expected to be an every-day presence in our lives.

If Mr. Obama were to adopt these elements in his approach to government, he would pull the plug on Obamacare and admit it was all a big mistake. He would see that the best way to provide a huge stimulus to the economy would be through downsizing government and reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses. Unfortunately, none of that is about to happen. This is a Santa or Easter Bunny on steroids -- a true bully who rejects the old "narrative," stated by Lincoln, which was "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator, is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank based in Saint Louis.