President Obama, Lost Protagonist in a Disjointed Story

Once upon a time there was an African-American candidate running for President of the United States. His election campaign rang out with promises of hope and change. People came by the tens of thousands to watch his powerful, moving speeches.

Here was a candidate who understood the power of narrative. Though still young, he had written an autobiography detailing the experiences of growing up bi-racial in America. Known for the power of his critical thinking and his hard-won self-awareness, this candidate seemed particularly promising after eight years of the George W. Bush administration—where many believed the U.S. with its secret rendition prisons and fruitless search for Iraqi WMD and subsequent war had veered far from its “core values”.

The votes were counted and this candidate won, and the American story was on the verge of writing an inspiring new chapter.

Or, so it seemed.

Now, more than five years later, it is difficult to determine the defining narrative of the Obama presidency. Some of his election promises were kept—on adopting universal health care and pulling soldiers out of Iraq. Others, like the widespread deployment of drones to bomb faraway targets, seem far from Democratic ideals. But whether each new development is tallied by the administration as a victory or a defeat, the arc of this presidency seems almost ungraspable—with no coherent theme or purpose that is understandable from the outside.

Of course it is always difficult to isolate the defining story of any presidency while it is still underway, and each era is assessed and re-assessed as time passes, secret files are revealed, and hindsight serves to clarify. But what is perhaps most surprising about this hope-and-change president is that Obama does not seem to think it important to communicate in these terms at all.

Consider this quote from a recent piece on 60 Minutes where President Obama outlines his personal impressions of Pope Francis.

“Well we spent a bulk of our conversation around issues of poverty and inequality, themes that he has been talking about quite a bit...” said Obama. “And, you know, what the Pope's able to do in a way that no politician can do is to shake people's conscience and to shine a light on the problem. It's our job to come up with policies to do something. What the Pope can do is to help mobilize public opinion.”

It’s the President’s job to come up with policies—whereas the Pope should be shaking up people’s consciences and helping to mobilize public opinion?

In a way, this quote should not be surprising—nicknamed “no-drama Obama” from his campaign onward, the President no doubt favors analysis and careful intellectual precision rather than dealing with the shifting sands of emotion or moral quandaries and quagmires.

But a man as brilliant and savvy as the President also understands that well-thought-out executive decisions and their emotional and moral consequences are not so easily disentangled.

After all, Obama did not become a politician as the result of a logical imperative. At the root of his motivations had to be a belief, a hope, a dream. But how do his dreams of hope and change inform his current term? We are left with no clear idea.

And then there is Hillary Clinton, just out with her new book “Hard Choices” that focuses on her time as Secretary of State. Receiving mixed reviews, it appears to try to get ahead of the most difficult moments of her term (Libya, Wikileaks) should she run for the Presidency once more.

More of a scrappy and tenacious policy wonk than a natural storyteller, she nevertheless takes a stab at portraying her term within a larger context. No Clinton can be accused of underestimating the power of narrative, but sometimes Hillary’s attempts can come across as superficial messaging and spin. She, like Obama, seems to be a wonk at heart who loves the work and getting the job done. The hand-shaking, messaging and public speeches seem to be regarded as an inconvenient, possibly distasteful, means to an end.

But whether political leaders like it or not, or whether or not they are entirely comfortable in the role, they will inevitably be seen by the public as lead protagonists in an intensely dramatic, complicated, and compelling story. In this way, perhaps politicians are rather like performing artists in that they must consciously invent stage personas. So Obama is both himself, the continuation of the smart and goofy kid he used to be, and he is also President Obama, Leader of the Free World.

I don’t think there is anything disingenuous about creating a political persona, any more than to choose a pen name, for example, or to change your name entirely in an act of reinvention. As Walt Whitman reminds us, we contain multitudes. Of course, the key question is the same as in narrative fiction: Are these creations emerging from a deep and authentic place?

An excellent example of a powerful and authentic public persona is the emerging Pope Francis. You don’t have to agree with what he says to understand how coherent, deep-seated and internalized beliefs can communicate a coherent narrative to the masses. Right from when he emerged onto the world stage with his simple and straightforward greeting, it is obvious he understands that, by the nature of his office, who he is and what he projects can hold immense power. But only if people can relate to it on human terms.

I will always be grateful for a journalism professor who in exasperation said to me: “Journalism is not about information—journalism is about narrative!” Of course it is. And that was what drew me to it in the first place, though in my earnest attempts to understand the course material I may not have been so clear about that at the time. But the fact is that narrative is a lot more unwieldy than a spreadsheet or a policy paper, and can be terribly imperfect, exasperating and disappointing. It can also be incredibly uplifting, inspirational and joyful.

Unfortunately, I would bet that Obama and his staff are witness to this same hope and change that propelled them to power in the first place. But this is not something that is automatically communicated by their policies or even in their canned talking points.

What is needed is a visible protagonist who both internalizes and seeks to communicate a human story in human terms, with all its triumph and sadness, victory and regret, in the context of a hopeful story still unfolding.