The Obama 'narrative' is overshadowing this presidency's real stories

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sing to me of the Obama narrative, Muse, the narrative of twists and turns driven time and again off course.

Like, say, the time in January, when this paper characterized Obama's State of the Union address as "an effort to set the narrative on Obama's first year," or in April, when the Huffington Post set about "Rediscovering the Obama Narrative," or this month, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wondered how such a gifted storyteller could "lose control of his own narrative." Sing to me, Muse, of the dismay Mark Halperin registered on his blog, the Page, when he wrote "Pundit/Press Narrative Forms Against Obama."

Journalists and politicians know that voters, like everyone else, are hard-wired to understand the world through stories. Elections are contests between competing story lines, something Obama, himself an elegant writer, and his team of political image editors were keenly aware of as they crafted the protagonist as a transformative Washington outsider, whose unerringly serious, postpartisan belief in competence, bridge-building and doing the right thing would improve the nation. That sympathetic character won 53 percent of general-election voters.

But now his narrative has taken on a life of its own.

"So much of the coverage and commentary has to do with the narrative, stagecraft, the political implications of what he is doing," said David Axelrod, Obama's special adviser for narrative, stagecraft and the political implications of what the president is doing. "When you are president of the United States, the most important thing is that you cope with the disaster." Not, that is, the story line of the disaster.

Imperfect messenger though he is, Axelrod has a point. The BP oil spill has largely been treated as the latest plot twist in the Obama epic. The plume of crude rising from the seabed is not only the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, darkening the gulf and thousands of lives and pervading the nation with a sense of helplessness, it is a metaphor for Obama's loss of control, a revealing moment to study our protagonist. Will he feel the seafarer's pain? Will he shake with fury? Will he weep tears into the salty sea? Sing to me, Muse, of the wrath of Washington's Achilles.

The initial government response did not provide enough dramatic juice to slake the chorus. So Obama visited the Gulf Coast again and again and again. With cameras rolling, he got into character and knelt to the ground and sifted sand through his fingertips. He grimaced on morning show interviews and pondered whose "ass to kick."

Then, on Tuesday night, in his first Oval Office address, speaking in martial terms of a "battle," he sought to move the story line off of him. Onward toward energy legislation! "Now," Obama thundered, "is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

But much of the reaction to the speech, rather than focusing on the plight of shrimpers or the legislative agenda, critiqued the address as a new panel in the ongoing Obama storyboard. On CNN, for example, White House correspondent Ed Henry complained that Obama had not discussed how much oil is leaking into the gulf, "perhaps because it doesn't fit into his narrative that the government is all over this."

In this particularly meta moment, the overarching Obama story line hovers a level above events, distracting from the disaster in the gulf, glossing over the question of whether the government's concrete actions are sufficient, removing readers and viewers and listeners from reality. The narrative has been constantly updated -- Obama's a hero one day, a goat the next -- as ravenous news cycles and impatient audiences demand conclusions, and attention-starved media outlets can no longer subsist on the modest first drafts of history.

"We are struggling to sustain a narrative concept in an age of contemporaneity," said David Shi, the president of Furman University in South Carolina, who is writing the ninth edition of "America: A Narrative History," a popular college textbook. "The demand for analysis and meaning of things right away puts real narrative under attack."

All of this undermines the traditional notion of a narrative as a slowly developing arc that requires perspective to be properly observed. "A narrative in the true sense means a beginning, a middle and an end," said Robert A. Caro, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson are touchstones of the narrative nonfiction genre. "That's a story."


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