Meta-Narrating: The Year in Review for President Obama
Paul Krugman’s op-ed (for today) begins:
Lately many people have been second-guessing the Obama administration’s political strategy. The conventional wisdom seems to be that President Obama tried to do too much — in particular, that he should have put health care on one side and focused on the economy.
I disagree. The Obama administration’s troubles are the result not of excessive ambition, but of policy and political misjudgments. The stimulus was too small; policy toward the banks wasn’t tough enough; and Mr. Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations.
I basically agree with this–I don’t think they could have gotten a bigger stimulus through, just as I was pretty skeptical they would ever get a public-option, but who knows.
Krugman’s third point is definitely valid. For political cover, Obama should have spent the year saying he inherited a mess. He can’t start now. In the public’s mind he now owns the financial (jobs?) crisis.
At the end of his piece, Krugman calls for pushing hard on regulatory reform. Sam Stein says that it’s already in the works. That push will undoubtedly be peppered with a healthy dose of populist rhetoric, if not necessarily populist policy (whatever that may be).
There’s one crucial piece missing from Krugman’s analysis, something much deeper that anything he mentions. It’s not just that Obama needed a narrative of laying blame at the feet of his predecessor, and not just that he didn’t catch on earlier to the rising populist rage (even within his own Democratic party), although he needed both of those. It’s that he needed to explain how these reforms (principally health care and now regulatory reform) fit into some larger, middle class-oriented project. Obama needed (and needs) to offer a broader domestic vision.
On foreign policy Obama has also begun to articulate his vision. It includes the acceptance of the end of American unipolarity and a call for more regional and nation-to-nation co-operation around common concerns: terrorism, environmental disasters, trans-national crime, etc.
But on domestic policy he hasn’t created any equivalent frame of reference.
I’ve said many times on this blog that I think the President (in fact, any President) has little to no real influence on Congressional legislation. And that, in my mind, is as it should be. The one thing the President can do is articulate his broader political vision. Otherwise, as we’ve seen with Obama, he gets reduced to trying to argue nick-nack policy sub-points. It plays into the worst stereotypes of Democrats as aloof managers–a stereotype that happens to have some real history behind it.
Obama’s campaign (through his speechwriter Jon Favreau) employed the narrative arc of American history. All the Yes We Cans were meant to signal that the coming era of leadership and participation would write its own chapter in the ongoing saga.
I think this was very effective as a campaign slogan, but this approach has not produced any tangible political guidance.
The reason I’m harping on narrative is not because I’m obsessed with faux-political consultancy language; I’m not a narrative-monger. The great philosopher Paul Ricoeur said that identity in a postmodern world (after the linguistic turn and the end of the philosophy of consciousness) occurred through the act of narration. Narration works through emplotment or the organizing of data-streams and experiences along a certain course. It gives a sense of meaning and operationalizes the hermeneutic circle, whereby any part is only understand in relation to the whole while the whole can never be understand except through its component parts.
In this case, the various reform bills are only comprehensible in relation to the over-arching narrative (the whole), which is largely missing from Obama’s agenda. I think it would be wise for the Democrats’ larger narrative to include some targeted anger at banks and Republicans, but more genuinely (and certainly more in keeping with Obama’s style), it should also focus on a comprehensive vision and how to make it real. To borrow Obama’s own terminology, it needs more light than heat .
I should add that I’m not advising a “narrative-only” strategy, i.e. some visionary rhetoric that will inspire people but has no actual plan of action behind it. Brighter minds than I need to come up with that element.