Obama’s Other Debate Failure: No Narrative
Teddy Roosevelt knew how to string a narrative together.
Everyone is talking about Barack Obama’s flat performance in the first debate, and with good reason. The debates are essentially television shows. Like any theatrical contest, the performer who is most entertaining and charismatic wins. The other guy loses.
But Obama also failed in another very important way. He failed to tell a good story. He didn’t offer any persuasive narrative that would tie together all his talking points. If he had, it might have compensated for his poor performance and softened the blow he suffered that night.
The funny and sad thing is that the Obama campaign has the makings of a consistent and powerful narrative, one that contrasts sharply with that of the Republicans. The president laid it out clearly last December at Ossawatamie, Kansas: “We’re greater together than we are on our own. ... In the long run, we shall go up or down together.”
That’s an time-honored story in American political life, though it hasn’t been heard as the main theme of a presidential campaign in decades. Obama went to Ossawatamie to take it off the shelf because that’s where Teddy Roosevelt spoke the same words over a century ago.
When TR used that narrative to run for the presidency in 1912 as a Progressive, the Democratic and Socialist candidates, Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs, were telling variations on essentially the same story. Among them they got fully three-quarters of the votes.
The last major party candidate to run on that narrative, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, got re-elected with 60 percent of the votes -- still a landslide in American political terms. The prospect of another Democratic president basing his re-election campaign on that progressive story, giving it new life in a new century, was exciting.
At Ossawatamie Obama enlarged the story when he praised “the promise that's at the very heart of America. ... Even if you're born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class.” The idea that everyone who works hard earns the right to a middle-class life is something new in American history. A campaign centered on that narrative would have been a landmark.
Obama used the same story for months. But then it got lost in the midst of a tangle of stories. The president began to show his central narrative the way he shows his smile -- in fleeting, and presumably carefully calculated, flashes. By the time he got to his acceptance speech in Charlotte, he was still saying, “Our destinies are bound together. … We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.” But that message was no longer central.
The words “middle class” showed up only twice in the acceptance speech. Obama mentioned, almost in passing, that he was fighting to restore the values that built the world’s largest middle class. But the “make-or-break moment” and the promise that everyone could make it into the middle class were gone.
Then, in the fiasco of the first debate, the progressive narrative pretty much evaporated. Obama hinted at it in his opening statement when he offered “a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best.” But then it went MIA. There were merely a few vague references to helping the middle class and one weak claim that, though free enterprise is “the genius of America, ... there are also some things we do better together.”
You could find the whole progressive story between the lines of Obama’s rambling words, but only if you tried really hard. The whole point of good storytelling is that the audience does not have to try hard. The main lines of the plot are too obvious to miss, because the storyteller puts them front and center and repeats them over and over again.
Bill Clinton proved that in his speech in Charlotte. He reminded us that not long ago, for eight years, we enjoyed a masterful Democrat storyteller in the White House. Before Clinton, the most popular presidents of both parties -- Reagan, Kennedy, the Roosevelts -- were all equally skilled storytellers, especially on the campaign trail. As the prominent Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg once wrote, in a presidential election “a narrative is the key to everything.”
No doubt Obama’s strategists know all this. And no one doubts Obama’s ability to put across an appealing story when he wants too. He proved it four years ago with his narrative of “Hope and Change.”
So what were those strategists thinking as they prepared their man for the first debate? Perhaps they were out to prove that he is a master of detail with a head full of numbers. But we already knew that.
More likely, they were obsessed with the messages they got from their polls and focus groups. So they had their man tell a new narrative: The Democrats have a plan to reduce federal deficits and the debt while still offering specific benefits to specific groups of people. Obama spent most of his time ticking off those benefits, in traditional Democratic laundry-list style, while insisting that Romney was the one who would increase the debt.
Maybe that’s the message the focus groups wanted to hear. Maybe it could be a winning narrative. If so, Obama should have stated it up front and then repeated it constantly. Implication and indirection don’t win elections. A clear narrative, told in simple language over and over, is what wins.
But there’s an obvious danger in letting focus groups determine the story: Next week a different focus group will want to hear something else, so the story will keep on changing.
Fortunately for the Democrats, Romney isn’t any more consistent as a storyteller than Obama. His performance in the first debate confirmed him as the etch-a-sketch candidate he’s been all along.
With neither candidate offering one clear-cut narrative, there’s nothing to interfere with the main goal of the debates: to show which candidate is a better performer on stage. That’s one more nail in the coffin of democracy.
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