"Barack Obama needs a new narrative," says Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist paid to craft narratives:
Over the past two years, the president appeared to take the opposite approach. Instead of editing his policy agenda or communications efforts, he tried to cram as many things in as possible. The list of accomplishments is astonishing: Health care reform; Race-to-the-Top; stimulus; saving the automobile industry; confirming two women to the Supreme Court, one of them the first Latina; Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women sue for equal pay discrimination easier; financial regulatory reform; making White House visitor logs more accessible. The list goes on and on, but the result was a fuzzy narrative that left the president and the Democrats dying a death by a thousand victories.
Unlike Reagan, Clinton or George W. Bush, President Obama has yet to offer the country a consistent and compelling unified field theory, or a central thematic that gives voters a framework to digest his policies. Reagan was a sunny faced cold warrior bent on taming government and the Russians to unleash America's force for good into the world as captured by his 1984 "Morning in America" ad. Bill Clinton was "focused like a laser beam" on "the economy, stupid" and after 9/11 George W. Bush was just "fightin' terror."
Two, very obvious things: first, "Morning in America" and "It's the economy, stupid" aren't "unified field theories" as much as they are catchy political slogans. That said, Obama actually has laid down a theory of his presidency, in the form of a speech he gave at Georgetown last spring. Riffing off of a common phrase in his rhetoric, Obama pledged to build a "new foundation" for future growth:
There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house. … It fell not: for it was founded upon a rock."
We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity -- a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.
It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future -- and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.
It might not work as a political slogan, but like Kennedy's New Frontier or Johnson's Great Society, it gives the public an idea of what Obama is aiming for in his presidency. To put another bullet in this undead narrative, the problem isn't that Obama lacks a unified message or that he has "too many" accomplishments -- and honestly, only a Democratic strategist would complain that the president has been too successful -- but that the economy is sluggish, and people don't actually give a shit about rhetoric when money is tight and their homes are a bad month away from foreclosure.
Put another way, if unemployment were at 6 percent, Obama would be wildly popular and the chattering class would be eager to praise his administration for its excellent messaging and effective communication skills. As it stands, the economy isn't doing too well, and so Obama seems more tone-deaf than he actually is (most of the time).
-- Jamelle Bouie
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