Could a better narrative save Obama’s presidency?

Last weekend, Emory psychology professor Drew Westen crafted a narrative for the op-ed section of The New York Times, in which he argued that President Barack Obama's failure to shape a national narrative has led to a failure to enact progressive policies. Westen’s premise resonated loudly with the online audience. The column was the most emailed story on the Times site Sunday, and the Op-Ed was shared widely on Twitter -- often with praise attached.

And it’s easy to see why.

In this Sept. 24, 2004 file photo taken in Chicago, Democratic U. S. Senate candidate Barack Obama listens to a question during a taping of WBBM's "At Issue." As the Obama faces the challenge of securing a second term, he'll use his hometown of Chicago as his re-election headquarters, something that lets him emphasize his "regular guy" credentials instead of his status as the ultimate political insider. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

On the surface, Westen’s is a tremendously appealing argument: the very messy political battles during the last three years resulted from our president’s inability to tell “the American people” a gripping yarn full of villains (Republicans) and heroes (Democrats). If the nation only had an Iliad, we wouldn’t be lost in the political wilderness.

Westen argues that a “simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands.”  Westen’s narrative idea has proven to have legs; New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman used his allotted inches to create his own proposed narrative, complete with speaking parts.

But ultimately, I disagree with the idea that a strong narrative will release the nation from political gridlock.

Even if Obama could have crafted a “simple narrative,” it’s unlikely he could ensure that it would become the dominant one that most Americans accepted and believed.

Truly, the greater narrative failure is the media’s, for providing coverage that lacks the necessary context and perspectives to shed light on the difficulties that Obama has faced as president -- difficulties that are unique to his experience as a black president leading a country that is hardly “postracial.”

Further complicating this formula is the social narrative, which no one person -- not the president or the media -- can control. These are the stories that trend on Twitter, dominate Facebook and play out on any number of independently-produced blogs and other media.

Westen fails to account for the social narrative, the media narrative and the role of race in Obama’s presidency and the stories told about it.

Poynter sense-making fellows Latoya Peterson and Sarah Fidelibus hash out these missing elements in Westen’s piece, in dialogue form.

Latoya: It amazes me that a story about narrative could ignore the role of context.

Westen’s op-ed stepped into the void and attempted to shape an easy-to-understand guide for what went wrong, but the lack of systemic knowledge about any number of issues -- from the debt ceiling to the drawdown in Iraq -- means that public conversations, proctored by those of us in the media, are difficult to parse without a framework.

Matt Thompson, editorial product manager at NPR, has some smart thoughts on the missing role of context in these conversations. However, Thompson puts the onus on the media not the newsmakers. Looking at episodic delivery of information isn’t a substitute for the intellectual framework that allows us to understand complicated things like political gear mashing.

In the end, Westen’s narrative is just as inadequate as the one he is critiquing, because he fails to acknowledge the very obstacles -- the current media environment and race --  that prevent Obama from creating such a unifying narrative. There are many more players -- the traditional media, new media, and the rising pundit class -- that muddy the waters. Or, as we say on the Internet, too much noise is crowding the signal.

Sarah: Absolutely. And that’s the problem with Westen’s fantasy that Obama, alone, could have controlled the narrative that would shape policy by being more like FDR in his Fireside Chats.

Westen says that FDR “minced no words” about who was “responsible” for the crash of 1929, and thus implies that forceful rhetoric was all that was required to force policy. But unlike in FDR’s time, Obama’s narrative is but one of many -- part of a “torrent”, much of which arrives without the context needed to fully understand it.

Obama has access to the same social narrative tools as others in media, but because these tools are becoming so ubiquitous, it’s unrealistic to think that one person -- even the president of the United States -- could control a narrative that would dominate these social channels.

Westen’s critique, in fact, is further proof of Thompson’s argument that a lot of the information shared on these channels is decontextualized: Westen’s critique made for great sharing via the social narrative because it delivers a sufficiently simple story that feels satisfying (“Oh, everything could have been so much better if Obama had just said something else in his inauguration speech!”). But in the end that’s all it is -- a simple story that ignores a lot of the facts and the context that would properly put the Obama presidency, and the challenges Obama has faced as president, in perspective.

Westen would have been more successful had he laid blame on the entire political leadership of the nation, like Friedman did in his most recent column.

Latoya: Right. I agree -- narrative is missing from what is happening on the national political stage. But again, we never hear why things are so different for Obama. He is the first black president, and he’s operating in an environment that is different from any other American president. Saying that the issue is solely not taking responsibility for the narrative also ignores how even the most basic of factual narratives (“Barack Obama is an American-born citizen”) has been challenged for three years. This is not something open to interpretation, and yet, here we have Obama producing his birth certificate twice!

Sarah: That’s precisely the problem: What accounts for balance in news much of the time is simply a willingness to incorporate a response from “the left” to counter claims made by “the right.” But doing so leaves out other perspectives that would provide the necessary context and analysis to understand the issues of our day in greater (and much needed) depth. So in leaving out any discussion of race, we fail to construct a full, more accurate narrative for things like the challenges to Obama’s citizenship.

When Westen talks about facing down bullies and exposing them for who they are, well, isn’t it the news media that are in the business of exposing bullies and revealing truth? If we as the media are going to tell the truth in the narrative we construct about Obama’s presidency, don’t we need to talk about race? What will it take for us to start doing just that?

Latoya: It would take honesty and maturity. Race is monstrously complicated, and I think that a lot of people are worried that bringing it up will open a Pandora’s Box that can’t be easily closed.

Sarah: I may have already given up hope, in that case.

Latoya: It’s easier to have conversations on race when it’s a small group of people. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you all can interact with each other and come to some sort of consensus on the facts and how we have to move forward. People are drawn to tight, happy narratives. Racial conversations don’t fit that schema.

Mutual respect and a desire to understand and solve the problem is key. You can also accomplish this with a common goal in mind. But those things are generally not found in our public conversations. And that’s, in some way, a failure of citizens; if we only respond to sensationalism and opinions, that’s what news organizations will keep publishing -- to our collective detriment.

Sarah: Indeed. Which is why when people do make some small attempt at even a sideways mention of Obama’s struggles as a president portrayed as an “other,” they do so in ways that miss the larger points. What was your take on Westen’s assertion that Obama doesn’t know how to “face down” a “bully” in the manner of Dr. King?

Latoya: Predictable, yet really foolish comparison. Dr. King was an activist. Obama is a politician. These are very different jobs. Dr. King was speaking out about overt racism; Obama deals with the blow back of covert racism. People love to talk about Dr. King since they think he was just this nice man with a dream; they seem to forget he was assassinated for his dangerous ideas about race, class, war, and equality. Reason doesn’t always win out, especially not in the time frame of the political cycle.

Sarah: This is made all the more distasteful to me when Westen resorts to armchair psychoanalysis, ultimately coming to the conclusion that Obama has some innate character flaw that has forced him to compromise when he shouldn’t have.

Latoya: Westen argued that Obama’s narrative failure has led to a lack of public confidence in his abilities. But do citizens understand the national debt or health care situations well enough to determine whether Obama’s struggles follow from a communications failure rather than a policy or political failure? The debt ceiling reporting focused heavily on the political situation that was unfolding. Less was done to interrogate the claims around the importance of the debt ceiling, and even less about how debt ceiling negotiations, historically, have not been used as a political tool.

Op-eds used to be an addition to the facts; but these days they are more of the main event. I wonder if this grows out of Fifth Estate standards. Did the rise of opinion-based blogging make news organizations think that people valued opinions over fact?

Sarah: Maybe. Citizens today have their own responsibilities in this new world, too, including consuming a healthy diet that provides them with the necessary facts and a variety of opinions. They can’t be passive receivers of information. Just because someone writes an Op-Ed, that doesn’t mean readers should buy the opinion wholesale. But the news media should also take on the broader responsibility of offering readers a clearer lens through which to view the issues of the day. In this case, that responsibility includes talking about race, if you’re going to talk about the Obama presidency.

Latoya: Right. In many ways, I think Westen inadvertently revealed the issue with his own construction -- narratives can only go so far, and can be easily manipulated by leaving out facts or complicating factors.

Why didn’t Westen engage with the issue of race more? And why didn’t he turn some of his attention to the Democratic machine; Republican elected officials are not the only people pushing messages. So a narrative can be a valuable tool for giving an overview of the situation, but it is also susceptible to slant and spin.

Sarah: And those of us in the media, then, need to take greater responsibility to peel back the layers of slant and spin, and take greater initiative to start having the difficult conversations that we need to have about race.

We need to go beyond an idea of “balanced” reporting that merely takes the form of representing the talking points of the two dominant parties.

The most important narrative going forward will not be the simplistic kind Westen desires, in which a hero emerges to slay the obvious villains and save the grateful citizens, but instead will be the one that allows for truths to emerge -- even the ugly truths that too many of our current narratives obscure.


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