The Obama Narrative: The Fierce Urgency of Now

In his New York Times op-ed, Thomas Friedman is on the mark when he notes that President Obama's agenda while comprehensive lacks a "compelling narrative."

Mr. Obama won the election because he was able to “rent” a significant number of independent voters — including Republican business types who had never voted for a Democrat in their lives — because they knew in their guts that the country was on the wrong track and was desperately in need of nation-building at home and that John McCain was not the man to do it.

They thought that Mr. Obama, despite his liberal credentials, had the unique skills, temperament, voice and values to pull the country together for this new Apollo program — not to take us to the moon, but into the 21st century.

Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency — not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy — and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.

So “Obamism” feels at worst like a hodgepodge, at best like a to-do list — one that got way too dominated by health care instead of innovation and jobs — and not the least like a big, aspirational project that can bring out America’s still vast potential for greatness.

Friedman's point isn't much different from the view expressed by John Podesta earlier this month when he complained of a "lost narrative."

The President would do well to package it all together and sell a vision. It's not that he doesn't have one, he certainly offered a compelling vision when running for office. It is that he has failed to articulate that vision day in and day out, never weaving the disparate threads of policies coherently into an overarching and easily comprehensible narrative.

The White House is set to unveil its healthcare proposals on Monday at 10 AM EST. While that's a welcomed development, the Administration must put it in context. It's not just change for the sake of change. Be explicit in words people can understand. Tell them why spending 17 percent of GDP on healthcare is misguided when all other advanced industrialized countries spend no more than 10 percent. Point out that by by the end of the decade, healthcare costs are forecast to consume 21 percent of GDP. Point out that's an unsustainable trend. Mention that unsustainable trends are by definition unsustainable. Tell them that we need to act, we cannot wait. In other words, talk about that "fierce urgency of now" that you campaigned on.

Be fierce. Be urgent. There is such a thing as being too late. If we don't act now, tomorrow's dawn will be a dark one indeed. The President has talked about this before. It's the narrative that got him elected. A solid majority of the American people got it then, they can get it now. We just need constant reminding of that narrative given our hyperactive, acute attention deficit disorder politics.

Perhaps the President himself needs reminding of why he ran in the first place:

I am running because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” I am running because I do believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost here.

I’m running because I don’t want to wake up one morning four years from now, and turn on one of those cable talk shows, and see that Washington is still stuck in the same food fight it’s been in for over a decade. I don’t want to see that more Americans lost their health care and fell into bankruptcy because we let the insurance industry spend millions to stop us for yet another year. I don’t want to see that.

I don’t want to see that the oceans rose another few inches and the planet has reached the point of no return because we couldn’t find a way to stop ourselves from buying oil from dictators. I don’t want to see that.

I don’t want to see that we risked more American lives in another misguided war because no one had the judgment to ask the tough questions before we sent our troops to fight. I don’t want to see that.

I don’t want to see homeless veterans on the street. I don’t want to send another generation of children through corridors of shame. I don’t want this future for my daughters and I do not accept this future for America. It is time to turn the page.

I run for the presidency for the same reason I drove halfway across the country over two decades ago to bring jobs to the jobless and hope to the hopeless on the streets of Chicago; for the same reason I stood up for justice and equality as a civil rights lawyer; for the same reason I’ve fought for Illinois families for over a decade. Because I will never forget that the only reason I am standing here today is because someone, somewhere stood up when it wasn’t popular, when it was risky; when it was hard. And because that someone stood up, a few more did. And then a few thousand. And then a few million. And together, they changed the world.

That’s why I run in this election. I run to give my children and their children the same chances that someone, somewhere gave me. I run so that a year from today, there is a chance that the world will look at America differently, and that America will look at itself differently. And I run to keep the promise of the United States of America alive for all those who still hunger for opportunity and thirst for equality and long to believe again.

That is the change that’s possible in this election. That is the moment I want to seize as President.

Carpe diem Barack or watch the country sink into a deepening morass of ungovernability. 

Tags: Obama Administration, Political Narratives, US Healthcare Reform, US Healthcare Reform (all tags)



I couldn't agree more

The narrative out of the WH this first year has been weak and wobbly. I think it is rather plainly apparent to those outside the punditocracy. I certainly have noticed it. I could past the Barack Obama facebook status updates here to make quite a disjointed pastiche.

There can be many reasons for this messaging outage, stemming from talent shortage to the shear volume of problems Obama is burdened with, to Obama being overmanaged. At least candidate Obama demonstrated remarkable discipline in messaging.

However, there is a major element missing from the discussion on messaging: what is the Democratic party narrative? What is the progressive movement narrative?

Step back from the President, who I concede is the de facto leader of the party and thereby its chief (but not sole) messenger, and I see a systemic narrative breakdown on the left.

As distatsteful as it may be, CPAC on the heels of the Tea Party convention revealed that that "element" of America has a narrative. It is strong but not compelling... for now. Yet they require no leader to convey that message through the media.

Even if the WH solved their messaging issues, would it be enough to be heard through the background noise in this country? My hypothesis is: no, it would not.

by NoFortunateSon 2010-02-22 01:26AM | 0 recs
I agree but......

The problem is that creating a narrative and getting out and selling it requires effort and leadership.  Both are things the Obama White House simply aren't into.

by mwfolsom 2010-02-22 09:46AM | 0 recs
RE: I agree but......

after seeing the Presiden't's healthcare proposals I have to concur with your assessment.

by Charles Lemos 2010-02-22 01:59PM | 0 recs
Tom Friedman talking about The Now

I thought he looked 6 months ahead.

by Khun David 2010-02-22 03:29PM | 0 recs
Obama Vision

Obama has a vision and he has stated it over and over again. He wants us to talk to each other in a friendly way, even though we may not agree. He wants to tear down the wall between "left" and "right." He wants us to get together to solve problems.

Sure, Republicans have fought him all the way. But so have Democrats like you. Every time Obama tries to reach out to Republicans you and other prominent Democrats attack him. Now you have the result: people are upset with Democrats and pundits are promising a bad November for Democrats.

Now you want Obama to express a vision or narative. What will you do if you don't like what he expresses? Attack?

You elect a leader who proclaims he is for bipartisanship. Then when he tries bipartisanship you attack him for not being totally on your side.

Obama is just as smart as you, perhaps smarter. He knows what Republicans are trying to do. So he has this healthcare summit to demonstrate to the people what Republicans have been doing. Will it increase bipartisanship? For healthcare, probably not. But it may open future doors to bipartisanship. This will happen ONLY if Democrats follow Obama's lead.





by PaulSiegel 2010-02-22 03:52PM | 1 recs
RE: Obama is just as smart as Charles?

 Well, Paul, I actually think that's an understatement, but I'm guessing it's us 2 against the rest, who are also smarter that Obama in their strange shared reality.

by QTG 2010-02-22 07:16PM | 0 recs


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