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Obama's So-Called Narrative Problem: There's More to That Story

5 years ago
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Before the midterm elections of 1970, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew took to the hustings to engage in one of the Nixon administration's favorite sports: bashing the news media. Speaking in San Diego, with words ghosted by William Safire, Agnew thundered: "In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club -- the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.'"

Forty years later, as another midterm season of high-decibel campaigning approaches, one wonders whether the Obama White House will send Joe Biden on the road with alliterative accusations adapting Agnew's anger. Increasingly, the current administration confronts what you might call the nattering nabobs of narrative -- pundits and political pooh-bahs who point to the absence of a coherent communications message as this presidency's paramount problem.

This past Sunday's New York Times fired a double-barrel volley at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In his column, Frank Rich asserted that "if there's one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One, it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative. In the campaign, that narrative, of change and hope, was powerful -- both about his own youth, biography and talent, and about a country that had gone wildly off track during the failed presidency of his predecessor. In governing, Obama has yet to find a theme that is remotely as arresting to the majority of Americans who still like him and are desperate for him to succeed."

On page one, Mark Leibovich's profile of David Axelrod ("White House Message Maven Finds Fingers Pointing at Him") strikes a similar chord, and there's this statement from Brown University political scientist James Morone: "The Obama White House has lost the narrative in the way that the Obama campaign never did. They essentially took the president's great strength as a messenger and failed to use it smartly."

What's missing in this nostalgia for narrative of 2008 vintage is the recognition that campaigning and governing are related -- but distinct -- pursuits. Seeking office is essentially an enterprise of communications: of saying what someone might do after winning an election. Actually accomplishing what's been proposed earlier involves much more than words -- or even "a compelling narrative."

Mario Cuomo receives credit in quotation books for the chestnut "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

In presidential terms, prose encompasses the language that's used in dealing, for example, with the many-minded members of the Senate and the House about legislation. If specific elements of, say, health care reform aren't clearly shaped and presented, then the House and Senate will follow their own lights, necessitating the bargaining back-and-forth to arrive at an acceptable bill, if that's even possible.

Having a "narrative," is, without doubt, a key element of this more complicated process, and The Times won't let its readers forget it. Back in October, Thomas L. Friedman sounded the alarm:

"I don't think that President Obama has a communications problem, per se. He has given many speeches and interviews broadly explaining his policies and justifying their necessity. Rather, he has a 'narrative' problem.

"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."

This is true -- and Friedman has repeated his critique in subsequent columns -- but other political maneuvers come into play that are just as important and require careful execution.

Three decades ago, in trying to come to terms with Ronald Reagan's eight years in the White House, I wrote a book, "Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality." It argued (however convincingly) that contemporary presidential leadership needs to combine effective governance both internally (within an administration and in concert with legislative bodies) and externally (with strategically planned events that deliver coherent messages about policies and objectives). Statecraft and stagecraft should always operate together, not separately, with a "narrative" just one dimension of an overall script for success.

Nattering about a no-narrative administration doesn't tell the whole story about any presidency.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

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