The first impression that many Americans had of Barack Obama was that of a great storyteller. His 2004 DNC speech was memorable oratory that linked his complex, multiracial, international, bicoastal personal narrative to a broader national identity—one that he described saying, “in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible.” Four years later, the 2008 Obama for America campaign repeatedly made rhetorical history with the “Yes We Can” New Hampshire concession, the Philadelphia “More Perfect Union” race speech, the memorable DNC nomination acceptance and, of course, the extraordinary November speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Candidate Obama had an ability to tell a story of America that captured national striving, greatness, accomplishment, and triumph without ignoring struggles, disappointments, disagreement, and loss. Take, for example, the night he was elected president of the United States. Barack Obama told a story about an African-American woman, Ann Nixon Cooper. Cooper was 106 years old, lived in Georgia and vigorously supported his candidacy. She was born in 1902, a time that President-elect Obama described as “just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” During her life Cooper was a civil rights advocate, a community leader, a mother and a wife.
As he marked the moment of his historic victory, Barack Obama chose Cooper as the lens through which to tell the story of America. He tied her personal story both to the arc of the nation’s history and to the future embodied in his own African-American daughters. Never before had a president invited us to see our national history through the lens of a disenfranchised black woman, but in doing so Obama gave us a way of understanding our national story as one rooted in growing inclusiveness and active government action on behalf of equality.
Whatever one thinks of the foreign and domestic policy outcomes of the past two years, it is clear that the Obama administration has stumbled in its ability to tell a compelling story.
Many progressives kept waiting for the great storyteller to emerge throughout the summer of the health care reform debate. The Tea Party effectively rewrote American history as they equated efforts of an enthusiastically elected government to pass a popularly mandated reform with the founding struggle against an oppressive monarchy. But there were few effective, penetrating tales of Americans who needed, wanted and supported reform. The Democrats proved incapable of linking health reform to great American traditions of civic responsibility or care for the vulnerable.
Similar failures of narrative have been egregious during the current budget fight. Once again the extremist elements of the GOP have managed to tell the most legible and convincing stories. Republicans hammered home the idea that the national budget ought to mirror household budgets. “When the going gets rough,” the GOP says, “people have to tighten their budgets, the American government ought to do the same.” This is a compelling story. People hear this and think to themselves, “Yes, yes, I have cut my cable bill, cancelled my vacation, and started cutting coupons; the government should do the same.” This is a false equivalency.