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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; B01

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."

Axelrod acknowledged that the Obama campaign may have created a bit of a Frankenstein's monster in telling such a compelling story to begin with.

"He told that story and told that story well," Axelrod said.

The problem, he added, is that the story about the story is mainly what journalists care about now. The administration's actions certainly have political implications and often political motives, but the media's default setting is to process every policy proposal, diplomatic gesture, government appointment and, now, national disaster through that prism. "Events occur that don't fit neatly into a narrative," Axelrod said. "But that doesn't mean you can defer them, or place emphasis on the storytelling and not the problem-solving."

To a certain extent, though, the White House is perpetuating the problem. In order to protect the president's political persona, the administration insulates him from unpredictable news conferences and limits access to decision makers with potentially independent views. In an effort to circumvent competing story lines, background quotes are whispered and blog posts are forever spinning the Obama yarn.

But the tighter the administration holds onto information and the message, the more members of the media write about the one thing to which they have unfettered access: the narrative. Obama reacts -- getting tougher on BP, feeling the pain of shrimpers -- and journalists, including some of the most acute observers in the profession, see a change before them. They amend the narrative some more, or suggest that the narrative itself is what really matters.

"As much as we talk about ideology and competence, our judgment of presidents doesn't hinge on either of these things in isolation," wrote Matt Bai in the New York Times this month. "What matters is the perception -- or perhaps the illusion -- that one is shaping events, rather than being shaped by them."

But with the distance of decades, the magnitude of this enterprise becomes clear.

Caro, who is working on the fourth volume of "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," said he is in the process of digging through Johnson-era newspaper clips. "The things that occur at the moment, they seem terribly important," he said. "But a week later, the columnists that were authoritatively saying one thing were saying the opposite in an equally authoritative voice."

"It was always like this," he added. "Only slower."

More recent history foreshadowed the current obsession.

In a 1993 New York Times Magazine piece, the late Michael Kelly skewered the Washington press corps, to which he belonged, for its obsession with "perception." Among his peers, he noted a depressing self-awareness that the important action in government was occurring behind the scenes and outside of their grasp. As a result, he wrote, "reporters fashion reality out of perceptions." To demonstrate how pervasive the practice had become, Kelly cited "bits of fatuousness" in which Washington news accounts focused on perceptions of the Clinton administration, all unexceptional but for one fact: He was the author. (In the spirit of such self-disclosure, this reporter is responsible for such additions to the narrative canon as "But a contrarian narrative is emerging" and "That narrative will only become more ingrained.")

And now the "narrative" tic is starting to get on people's nerves.

An article in the May issue of Campaigns & Elections magazine headlined "The Narrative's Narrative" offered a critical look at the rise of a "political buzzword." In March, Reason magazine's Matt Welch worried about " 'narrative' creep" in an article titled "The Obama 'Narrative' Narrative." And in the New York Review of Books last month, Joe Lelyveld expressed frustration with the ubiquity of the "Obama narrative" by wondering "what the so-called 'narrative' of the moment, any moment, actually amounts to (or even how the academic concept 'narrative' had crept into the reporting of stories)."

One reason for the narrative creep, according to Shi, the historian, is that we are living in a time "punctuated by dramatic intensity," with a raft of existential issues central to America's future all coming to the fore at once. And smack in the middle of this is a president who inspires imaginative leaps by all those around him.

"Obama has a great deal of dramatic reserve," explained Harold Bloom, a Yale University literary critic. He said the combination of the memoirist in chief's status as the most literate president since Abraham Lincoln and his inscrutable steeliness amounted to irresistible material for the "frustrated writers" in the press corps. "You have a touch of a Shakespearean character, and people start constructing narratives."

Jason Horowitz writes about politics for the Style section of The Washington Post.

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