Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mister Hope Is Secretly Mister Reliable

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

The day before President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy, Politico published John F. Harris's very important and newsy thumbsucker about the peril that "anti-Obama storylines" pose to Obama's Presidency. The first sentence of the article is, no kidding, "Presidential politics is about storytelling."

Storytelling. Huh. And here I thought it was about the economy and the two wars.

The Obama Presidency could easily founder. But failure is more likely to come from the Afghan highlands or the malarial swamps of Wall Street than from catchy Beltway meta-narratives. I know the media is always telling us how appearance is reality. But actually it only looks like it.

Narratives aren't primarily ways to understand a politician or a campaign. They are ways to misunderstand it. Indeed, that is what Harris is pushing: seven largely inaccurate perceptions that could lead to Obama failing even if he does the right things for the country. It's a strange thing to find such a topic cool or interesting, but Harris's admiring connoisseurship shines through the piece. He feels a bit like those kids who spend their free time crafting the nastiest computer viruses they can: all the pleasure lies in the craftmanship and destructive power of the meme.

For what it's worth, one of the narratives into which the press will inevitably conscript Obama is Icarus Falls to Earth, in which the shining idealist Obama is grounded by hard reality. In fact, they started writing this story the night he won the Iowa primaries. But it won't be true, because that pleasingly formed but misleading narrative is grounded upon the pleasingly formed but misleading narratives fostered by Obama's own campaign: the notion that he was Mr. Hope and Captain Change, the candidate of revolutionary optimism.

Barack Obama is, whatever else you make of him, an incredibly unlikely youth leader. And while he was clearly popular with the young and had a fabulous ground organization, he wasn't the leader of anything like a youth movement per se. He is not, like most youth movement leaders, a firebrand. He's more like your studious buddy that your parents liked, because he was a safe driver and might be a good influence on you. He's the motorcycle-less boyfriend your parents hoped you would marry: Mr. Reliable. Least of all is Obama anything approaching a revolutionary. And that was extremely evident during the election. He did campaign on Hope and Change, as campaign themes, but his promises were about sane, pragmatic policy adjustments, optimistic but very much grounded in reality. The real Barack Obama isn't going to fall to earth because he's always been standing on it. If he fails, it will be from an excess of caution.

Will this shock the voters? Not really. I suspect that the truth we haven't told, the story hiding behind the story of Mister Hope, is that Obama won in large part because he is so satisfyingly boring and calm, so capably reassuring. Even his soaring rhetoric isn't flashy or "exciting." It's resolutely reasonable and calm: a triumph of oratorical serenity. Voters know this, and feel this. The election was conducted at a time of national emergency, and Barack Obama is essentially the guy you trust to make medical decisions for your parents. He never seems rattled; he's able to take in complicated information under pressure, and then ask the necessary questions and make the necessary decisions. John McCain, who works very hard to project a youthful, devil-may-care attitude, is a great candidate for a bored and jaded electorate, but a bad match for an anxious one. Obama, on the other hand, can be downright soothing.

If the Republicans want to beat him, this is what they have to remember. They have to do more than beat Obama up. They have to provide an alternative, and that alternative has to feel safe. If the Obama Presidency fails, it almost certainly means that the country will sink deeper into crisis. And while voters would want to punish Obama for that, what they would want most of all is someone to fix things. That person needs to feel reliable, capable, and calm, to be someone voters trust instinctively. The Republicans will need their own Obama, but first they need to figure out who Obama is.

No comments: