How Obama lost the narrative

Obama veterans have a slew of theories about what went wrong. They cite the challenges of driving a complex message through the horrific crisis he inherited. They blame the intensifying polarization of the public judging him, with nearly half the electorate reflexively opposing almost anything he does. They recognize the contrast between his pristine campaign vision of change and the change he’s been grinding out in the real world, through the kind of messy Washington sausage-making he used to criticize on the trail. And the White House’s own messaging strategy, a subject of perennially fierce internal debate, has been perennially debatable.

Most of all, they cite the dizzying changes in modern media, where Americans get their news where they choose, where conflict is the click of the realm, where lies travel at the speed of tweet while the truth is still annotating its Medium post. They blame short-attention-span journalism for creating a distorted narrative of a flailing presidency, by freaking out over crises—double-digit unemployment, the Gulf oil spill, the healthcare.gov malfunction, Ebola—and virtually ignoring their resolutions. They think the bully pulpit has lost much of its power in an era of 24-hour cable and social media, though they admit they were slow to adjust to the new realities. When Obama spoke at Northwestern, he didn’t even have presidential Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Then again, political types love to blame bad outcomes on bad communications, and for some of Obama’s problems—chaos in Syria and Libya, the website fiasco, disappointing wage growth—it’s hard to imagine a message that could have spun lemons into lemonade. Some Obama policies are unpopular because they’re not what people want. Some Americans are dissatisfied with the Obama era because they’re not doing well.

The president’s Spock-like, no-drama persona has also complicated his efforts to connect with the public at times when terrorists were beheading innocents and pathogens were on the loose, especially in the new on-demand environment of rapid response and viral content.