If tragedy occurs when anointed heroes who know better betray their own promise, Barack Obama’s no-drama, no narrative express is about to derail. Expect no solace from truth-telling jesters populating classical tragedies, au contraire judging by so many lying rogues nowadays, nor anything like comic relief. Top Democrats will be relieved if they only lose the House.
How swiftly the thrill of victory turns to the agony of defeat. And we leftists are the “crazies” needing intervention or drug therapy? If this White House cannot find a gripping narrative to justify its power, then – rest assured – wingnuts in the wings will reprise their perfectly coherent storyline. Brace for new and improved wedge-driven crusades against sham enemies, domestic and foreign.
Retro Bush-Cheneyism, re-sharpened by cruder minds (Beck, Palin, Limbaugh), provides breakthroughs all right, with more emotive, racial sound bites. So, what can reverse the tectonic shifts under our feet? Bad guys own a polished delivery system, with clearer story, frames, and pithy proverbs, while dazed Democrats appear mute, void of rousing messages but not delayed, defensive misdirection. Game, set, and match for this midterm madness.
If not tragic, then what?
Thus, emerging lessons from the Great Obama Disappointment:
1) Any political narrative, however coarse, beats no narrative.
2) No narrative means “wasting” the very crises true leaders leverage to build confidence and broadcast heroic accomplishments.
Worse still, repeatedly blowing big “teaching moments” makes a president appear reactive, a pawn to destiny not its master (re: natural disasters, violent conflicts, industrial, mining or oil spill “accidents,” or big-time economic downturns). If great events don’t get transformed to show off one’s singular mettle (or veneer, W. after 9/11), then fallen leaders appear swamped by circumstances. Has Obama not had enough telling at bats?
The term “tragedy” pops up this week after being reminded Mr. Obama knew clearly what defines great leadership, per his 2006 speech: Americans, he declared, “are coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.” Bingo, knowledge is not execution: today’s majority perceives no national purpose, convinced again we’re heading in the wrong direction, thus so many are abandoning Obama as – pick your metaphor – lost in the wilderness, out of his depth, or lurching from crisis to crises – replete with uninspiring, “wait-and-see” missteps in the face of crises.
Specific policies and compromises aside, wasn’t Task One for the post-Bush Democrats amazingly obvious: defend good government, indeed the idea of government, link it hard to prosperity and purpose and celebrate federalism as a national treasure worth repairing? Rejoin, in short, the great, historical adventure towards a “more perfect union.” Okay, scratch perfection, but there must be something above Bush-Cheney’s trashing majority rule, the Constitution, and America’s reputation. Beyond the insane, community-busting tribalism of “never retreat, reload.” Or politics reduced to merely one Big Lie, all opinion and no knowledge.
Moral Politics, not Pragmatism
George Lakoff must be heard: “All politics is moral,” mistakenly degraded to pragmatism, expediency, or quantity of passed bills, as if midterm triumphs follow gains notched on a stick: “All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics — and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.”
That means defending overall health care (not insurance reform) as a national moral imperative, not an efficiency, bill-paying exercise. “Life Panels” for all, would do just fine. Or linking the future of the earth, plants, and wildlife with human survival, at least humane survival. I challenge loyalists to establish Obama’s declared, overriding, working “sense of purpose” without which our national mission is left ill-defined. Explain who Obama really is (beyond the clichés, left and right), what principle or hill is he’s willing to die on, what true risks taken, even the inexplicable blunder of thinking vaunted legislation doesn’t need massive “sell-through,” confusing popular acceptance with Congressional votes?
No wonder the Tea Party, that torrent of mayhem and obstinacy, prospers, no wonder the progressive base is gnashing its teeth, desperate for the leader it thought we helped get elected. Leadership lives and dies by creating forward motion, that not-so-mystical “narrative arc” reminiscent of all gripping plots, from blockbuster films, novels, hit TV series, religion or re-election campaigns. Presidential momentum is all about setting admirable destinations, then moving the majority towards the finale. Wither Obama?
The Medicine Against Nonsense
Even in crass political terms, this White House needs a counter-acting storyline if only to keep the scorched-earth destroyers at bay. No one disabuses deluded dummies with mere denial: mean-spirited distortions are trumped with “higher truths,” better catchphrases, and engaging prospects. We’re getting way past “failures to communicate” but the lethal blunder of never establishing the foundational base line of ideas that organizes events, random and not, in a meaningful, thus purposive process. Increasingly, Obama’s greatest failure goes beyond not repairing Bush-Cheney violations but not framing his presidency to give full value to moves in the right direction, of which there have been some. Thus, not quickly healing the Constitution is understandable, less so repeatedly favoring the few at the top, not the many below, half of whom actually vote. No baseline means no map and no compass to measure progress, and so voters are estranged.
Further, full political maps must include the recent past, thus defining one’s starting point. That makes Obama’s obsession to banish the age of Bush as a bad dream extremely costly denial. Banning the past precludes knowing where we are, who we are, how we got here, and, most importantly, how to escape. What drives every good storyline are compelling, informing “back-stories” of all the characters, both the wicked criminals who wounded us and the heroes who at least keep us from even deeper waters, in fact the crashing waterfall ahead.
History mattered when Obama put together his winning personal narrative. Who can forget that daring, young, racially-mixed, internationalist newcomer, elite education but up from the people as community activist, not yet under big lobbyist thumbs, full of big ideas, high hopes, and politically savvy. Where is that protagonist, that bold, risk-taking, promising figure with the golden voice? Candidate Obama kept his eye on HIS prize (hello, we’re here, too), got in the trenches (especially on race), and knew when to raise and when to call an opponent’s bluff. The two-year falloff of this president’s popularity tracks the fleeting distance from there to here.
Only Stories Measure Progress
Hey, Dim-ocrats, the midterms are not about high-sounding bills passed, cutting spending or combat troops, nor forever repeating “what Obama inherited” – you’re pitching the wrong products to angry centrists. Inherited obstacles make, not break heroes and the absence of narrative reflects the wrong advisers, like yours who love Wall Street but hate your base. Mr. President, instead of dumping on liberals, hire a genius screenwriter who knows how to touch people with forceful storylines that win elections. Karl Rove, even Sarah Palin, get much of this, so it’s not rocket science. Where is your narrative Shakespeare?
Boy oh boy, will historians ever puzzle out how the cheerleader Bush baby got smarter in the White House (the quick-study front man) while a first-class politician (and perhaps mind) suffered an apparent brain transplant after taking office. The dumb learned to speak, powered by a wicked yet coherent GOP narrative, while the gifted candidate, with wind at his back, seems dumber. Listen to any two minutes of last week’s stunningly ineffective “Iraq is over” speech – WTF?
Perhaps there’ll never be an Obama Doctrine, or a return of inauguration fever, but there must be more to good governance than 18 months of Politics as Survival, or Rule by Retrenchment. If this is Obama’s continued “vision,” we’re headed towards the graveyard of failed presidencies. This is no Greek tragedy full of inevitability but a missed historic opportunity, the result of human decisions, a president not executing what he eloquently described four years ago. For any pragmatist, that’s an American tragedy.