Obama’s Storytelling Problem


I wrote at length yesterday that I thought Drew Westen was off base to blame most of President Obama’s problems on his inability to tell a good story. The fact is that Obama has told a good story. It’s just not the one Westen wants. What’s more, Obama’s problems are much more ones of policy than of explication. What he really needs is a better economy, but he never put the policies in place to get it.

But I guess I’m feeling cranky today (can you tell?), because now I want to take the other side and push back a bit on some of the blunter suggestions that storytelling doesn’t matter at all. Here’s Will Wilkinson:

Turning a crowd from hostility to adoration through pellucid, charismatic truthtelling is a venerable Hollywood trope, a close relative of the slow clap. But here on Earth Prime,1 presidential talking has little effect on the constraints the president faces.

Political scientist John Sides backs him up: “There is precious little evidence that presidents accomplish much by rhetoric—least of all large shifts in public opinion. In fact, when presidents start giving barn-burning speeches and drawing lines in the sand, guess what often happens? It makes it harder for presidents to get things done.”

Granted: presidential speeches don’t have a big impact. Probably they never have, but in any case the media environment is far too croweded today for a presidential address to have much effect on public opinion.

But there’s more to this. When Westen talks about building a narrative, there’s more to it than just a speech here and there. Presidents really do have a unique pulpit, and they really do have an opportunity to move public opinion. First, they do it by agenda setting. Both the public and Congress tend to follow a president’s lead. Second, by repetition. A single well-turned speech might not make a big difference, but a persuasive narrative delivered over and over can. Third, presidents succeed by leading their party and getting them to adopt the narratives he wants them to adopt. Fourth, he can influence other thought leaders: journalists, talking heads, church/union/academic leaders, and so forth. They can amplify a narrative far beyond the circle of high-information voters who actually pay attention to presidential speeches.

Put all this together and presidential narratives almost certainly can have an effect. Not a huge one, maybe, but public opinion underlies everything in a democracy, and moving public opinion even a few points can make a big difference in a closely divided country. Unfortunately, Obama has had little success with most of these channels. His story has been one about the dysfunctional partisanship destroying Washington and how to move beyond it, and he’s told this story well and often. However, he hasn’t succeeded in making this into a broader agenda item; he hasn’t succeeded in getting his own party to adopt this narrative as its own; and he hasn’t succeeded in getting very many thought leaders to spread it to their audiences. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it was the wrong story for the wrong time, maybe it’s because getting liberals to agree on a message is like herding cats, maybe it’s because the left doesn’t have a good media megaphone, or maybe it’s because Obama just isn’t very good at the broader task of narrative building. But whatever the reason, it just hasn’t worked so far. And although I don’t think it’s his biggest problem, I think it is something that makes a difference. Unfortunately for Obama, he hasn’t yet succeeded in harnessing it.

1Note to non-geeks: “Earth Prime” = the actual earth we live on.