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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Obama's SOTU Narrative (belated comments)

President Obama's approval numbers have rebounded in recent weeks since the un-lame lame duck, the Tucson speech, and his apparent move to the political center. He now stands at or above the 50% mark in many polls, a strong position for an incumbent president with the economy (seemingly) on the way up. Recent accomplishments have elevated his popularity. But if the rise of Obama 2.0 continues , there might also be something less tangible behind it.

That something is a political narrative: a story about why he's doing what he's doing, and where he wants to lead us as a nation. I think we got such a narrative --- "winning the future" at our "Sputnik moment" -- in the State of the Union address. For his first two years, Obama at once enjoyed legislative success and political failure. This happened because Obama persuaded Congress to pass many items on his policy agenda, but forgot to persuade the people that we need them. Obama now looks like he's trying to change that. Joe Kline of Time explains the significance of the shift:
"Two years into his presidency, Obama has discovered the power of storytelling. I was always struck by how few anecdotes he told when he was running for President; his rhetoric was more about we than he or she, even though telling stories about actual people is one way politicians can demonstrate that they are actual people too, sort of. Ronald Reagan, who invented the tear-jerking hero sitting in the First Lady's box, was the master of this. But Obama's brilliant Tucson speech hinged on the character and dreams of a 9-year-old girl, on the human qualities of all the victims, and his State of the Union speech was a nonstop round of inspirational storytelling."
Obama's emblematic American heroes were inventive and entrepreneurial. They were ordinary citizens rising to the challenge of a stagnant economy and global competition. They would drive us past tough times, Obama seemed to say, but government can help. The solutions Obama offered were the same vague progressive ideas he has promoted since he began running for President. The historical context in which he promoted them -- and the narrative they form -- are different. The substance is similar; the packaging is new and improved. But perhaps that will make all the difference.

1 comment:

Hannah said...

Your commentary seems to go back to the classic Machiavellian virtue requisite in all princes (statesmen): the necessity of recreating the conditions of the founding (or in this case the 2008 election) in order to maintain the need for the ruler who led the people through the founding.
In that context, Obama has two more years to successfully reinvent the presidency, or the prevailing economic conditions will probably require a new leader with princely virtue.

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