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.

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23 thoughts on “Meta-Narrating: The Year in Review for President Obama

  1. Isn’t it positively frightening how desperately we — people, I mean — crave stories (i.e. “narratives”) to filter and shape our perception of the world? I’m beginning to wonder if this craving will eventually become our nemesis.

    What if the whole of humanity should ever face some real-world challenge which *cannot* be turned into a narrative, which defies the very concept of “Story”? We’d be blind to such a challenge, wouldn’t we? “I can’t wrap a story around this development, so I’ll just ignore it.”

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    • I don’t know, people have always been telling stories. From pre-historic camp fires for all I know. Seems to have served us (somewhat) well to date.

      Humans are linguistic-cultural beings. Humans are also other things too, but that is a fundamental dimension of human existence, as far as I understand.

      Like Ricoeur said, once you accept (as I think one must) the linguistic turn and the criticisms of the philosophy of consciousness, then there are only a couple of choices left.

      One is to abandon any coherent self-sense and then you end up in deconstruction and transgressive philosophies, ultimately non (or even anti) humanistic. Like post-structuralism and so forth. Philosophies that make people ultimately (I think) passive and fearful.

      Another is to accept the Ricoeurian notion that narrative established continuity. I think that’s part of the way forward.

      Another would be Habermas’ notion of communicative intersubjective reasoning. His understanding is not based in narrative and opens a way forward that takes seriously the criticisms of the linguistic turn but doesn’t end up in relativism and deconstruction. I think it could be complementary to narrative formation, but adds the necessary element of responsibility and binding justness/morality which can easily be lost in a view of competing narratives only.

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  2. I need to read up on my Habermas, obviously…

    – Transgressive philosophies strike me mostly as so much adolescent posturing, a way to distance oneself from an authority figure. Adolescents often rebel and then come back and ask for handouts from Mom and Dad, as any parent can testify. Transgression is another narrative to please oneself: “Watch me heroically defy Society!”

    – What if reality is in fact non (or even anti) humanistic, and refusing to admit so might eventually get us into trouble we cannot face up to?
    And I’m not even talking the obvious issue de jour, the environment / global warming. Reality might throw far bigger shocks at us. (I write fiction, and if anything it has taught me that reality is always more incredible than any story us humans can cook up.)

    – What if “continuity” is only a localized and fleeting phenomenon in the real world?
    In fact, a recent claim in cosmology is that the expanding universe does suffer from “memory loss”. That is, a constantly accelerating cosmic expansion causes information from (about) the past to gradually recede into oblivion. Once that past is out of sight, it is cut off forever.

    If this is so, the Universe is erasing its own origin — there is no story to it but what we make up — perhaps its beginning was only an imagined “Story” in our minds. Then narrative really does not, cannot exist. To admit this, as a species, might be too hard to swallow. I don’t know.

    In politics, the fixation to “Tell’em a Good Story” seems to have trapped the system. Events like Hurricane Katrina or Global Warming — or the banking crisis for that matter — are not meant to entertain or “move” us. What if there is no villain? What if it doesn’t help to find the scapegoat of these problems, because the root of the problem is in the system but we don’t care because that’s not a Good Yarn?

    But no: “It’s all the fault of the Villains, those Evil Bankers / Capitalists / Liberals / Terrorists. Defeat them and We can return to the village for the big celebration.” Nothing beats a good storybook villain.

    In the worst cases, like a R*sh L*mb**gh or a P*t R*berts*n, the storytelling urge distorts reality into a paranoid legend for morons, where the listeners are cast as the heroic put-upon victims of a conspiracy.

    And stupid stories are poison to mature thought: they demean and infuriate, they block reason, they turn us into petty children.

    One of Barack Obama’s notable successes in his election campaign was that he admitted the threat of toxic narratives (like the story of “The Secret Muslim”) and set up counter-campaigns to combat them. I found that admirable — and, of course, completely necessary.

    Is Obama still fighting off hostile narratives, or are his actual efforts drowning in a mess of competing stories…? Again, I don’t know.

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    • I have to agree.
      I seem to remember a whole meme about how long the Democrats can blame Bush.
      I would have commented on it earlier (I read this post when there were no comments), but I thought I might have been occupying an alternate universe in which Dem talking heads didn’t say, “inherited this mess” every five seconds.
      My fiance woke up (she told me to write fiance) and,upon inquiry, informed me that I had in fact occupied this universe for the past year.
      So, I would have to say that Krugman and Dierkes need to inform NASA about their whole interdimensional, breaking the speed of light sort of thing.
      Regardless of which universe, dimension, or space time continuum you occupy; I just have to say that blaming Bill Frist (who?????????) for your problems is probably not an idea (I will not even give it the reverence of calling it a bad idea).

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      • that was a secondary point in my post. since no one is arguing against the primary point i’ll take it that’s agreement?

        as to the secondary point….yes obviously it’s not as if Obama (and other Dems) have never ever ever blamed Bush. Even on the financial side. Krugman’s point was that Obama has not done it to the degree Reagan did in his first year, and I think that’s a valid point.

        Obama has certainly at points blamed the last administration. What Krugman is talking about (a la Reagan) is a fundamental (and oft-repeated) “narrative” about the failure of a whole governing paradigm. Reagan: “govt is the problem.” Obama will reference such a something kinda sorta half-like this at points, usually obliquely, but it’s not the same.

        It should be noted I’m usually not a fan of Krugman (in his political commentary).

        Anyway, at this point it’s moot. That boat has already sailed.

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        • idk…I’m mulling it over still, but the “he should’ve blamed bush more” strikes me as politically tone deaf. The President wasn’t elected by people who wanted to hear how terrible his predecessor was, they already know, hence Senator McCain & Former Governor Palin.

          I have a standing issue with Paul Krugman that his ideological leanings critically compromise his pieces. This seems no different.

          Krugman is essentially saying, “the CW is POTUS tried to do too much, but I disagree, he should’ve done more and differently. He should’ve done more of what I wanted.” Of course most ideologues think if people did more of what they wanted, they’d be fine, like all those people who think Bush’s primary failing was that he wasn’t conservative enough.

          It’s an analysis that falls short.

          I kind of agree with what you’re saying, that he’d be more successful with a clearer, better understood domestic vision, except I think he would just have more support from his base and probably some dissatisfied independents. I don’t think he’d have grown his support but certainly it’d be more cohesive and focused.

          What the White House has done is push a narrative about the President. A President who “inherited” a mess (blameless) but is a transformative and accomplished figure (“biggest ever” “most ever” “saved from financialpocalypse” “got healthcare done”). He may well be a very good president but I think if there’s no overarching vision of domestic policy goals it’s because a.) the White House doesn’t want to give the GOP a roadmap of obstacles and b.) the overarching vision of just how great the President is kind of sucks the air out the room.

          wrt health care reform, it’s abundantly clear the white house cares more about getting something passed than it does the quality of what’s passed and it’s hurting the policy while demoralizing his party’s base.

          I agree wholeheartedly that Presidential overreach is a red herring here, perhaps he chose the wrong things to pursue and in the wrong order but one year out this is a President who has managed to disappoint just about everyone while remaining personally likeable, without much too show for it besides a less mortally wounded economy. Tabling policy for the moment, it’s a level of narrative or political mismanagement that’s both unexpected and astounding.

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            • personal dislike does but I’m not nearly as ideological as my comments here might otherwise suggest, just as stubborn perhaps, but not as ideological.

              Whereas, the quality of Krugman will go from respectable to “liberal fascism” with a frightening degree of alacrity.

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              • “liberal fascism” always a phrase guaranteed to get a large mocking laugh from me. Never before has so much been said about so little.

                My guess is a lot of us come off more ideological or strident then we really are.

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            • Also, to quote former Grey Lady ombudsman Daniel Okrent,

              Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales “called the Geneva Conventions ‘quaint’ ” nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.

              No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd’s way, and some of Krugman’s enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn’t mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn’t hold his columnists to higher standards.”

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        • I think what we have are some very wily Republicans who successfully push the idea that any reference Obama makes to having inherited some serious god-awful messes, usually exceedingly obliquely, amounts to a heinous, uncouth slander of the previous administration. In fact, one can’t really discuss reality forthrightly without acknowledging that we as a country got collectively continually shafted for the last eight years and came out of it the worse for wear. Apparently talking about that amounts to unseemly blame-shifting, though.

          (Though I have to agree that whatever the merits, I don’t think it actually would have helped much and just would have made Joe Scarborough all the more indistinguishable from the Church Lady that much sooner.)

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  3. I’m actually willing to go a little further than Chris. Meta-narratives essentially are the game. You’ve gotta be “Building a Bridge to the 21st Centiry” or “Fighting the War on Terror” (or Building a Bridge to War on Terror), or else your efforts are lost to historical entropy. You have to push a frame, you just have to. Of course, actually creating the 22 million jobs or producing the Shock and Awe for television helps to. You need deliverables. But you really have to deliver them in a memorable container. And push comes to shove, the deliverables you can fake. Fancy packaging actually has to be fancy.

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