Obama’s failed narrative: Did the presidency ruin a good storyteller, or vice versa?
Presidents are perpetually interviewing for their own job. And inevitably, they get asked some version of that ever-present job interview cliché: What’s your biggest flaw, your greatest mistake? Here’s how President Obama answered that question when it was posed by CBS talk show host Charlie Rose in July. “The mistake of my first term was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important, but, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
It was the politician’s version of the old businessman’s excuse: The problem isn’t the merchandise; it’s the marketing. And what that really means is that the problem isn’t bad management; it’s bad customers. The buyers just can’t see how great the product is.
Which may be the most revealing Obama degeneration of all. He could have said that he didn’t make any mistakes. He could have pointed to some piece of unpassed legislation that he didn’t manage to get through Congress. Instead, he talked about a failed narrative. He made all the right decisions, chose all the right policies, but the public just didn’t get it, so he’s just going to have to do a better job of rewriting history…
It’s no surprise that Obama thinks his biggest flaw is insufficiently effective storytelling. He wanted to tell a story that would obliterate the past and remake the world of politics from whole cloth. But unlike his early days, he has to live with the facts he’s been given, the history he’s actually made, rather than the myth of his own creation. Obama’s greatest strength has always been his ability to tell an engaging tale, to imagine more powerful narratives for the people who inhabit his world. But he could never live up to the one he imagined for himself.