In The New Yorker's look back at Obama's first year, Junot Diaz urges Obama to be more of a storyteller.
All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing.
On the one hand, I empathize with Diaz. One way Obama can exert the full power of the White House is by employing his rhetorical skills to sway public opinion towards his causes, whether it's healthcare reform or his stimulus plans. No doubt, that's hugely difficult when most of the public has healthcare and might not see any immediate benefit or change in their coverage. I'd love to think the public would find the lack of universal healthcare to be a moral travesty for a nation of our means, but I know that's a pipe dream. Obama's wonkish approach to selling healthcare reform has failed to stir the hearts of much of the public.
On the other hand, Diaz's essay, while an elegant narrative, seems naive when one considers the structural blockade that the Senate Republicans have formed with Scot Brown's election. If bipartisanship is dead, and the Senate Republicans seemed to have effectively throttled any hope of that, then all the speeches and stories by Obama won't push anything through unless he can regain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
I had long since given up hope in the government of enacting sweeping, meaningful reform. It has less to do with my faith in who occupies the Oval Office and everything to do with the irreversible ascent of special interests to becoming the fourth branch of our government, more powerful than any of the other three. That in and of itself need not be a bad thing, but this loose coalition of lobbies does a poor job of representing the needs of the country as a whole and instead excels simply at entrenching the payouts to the narrow interest groups they represent. Subsidies whose conditions for creation have long since disappeared are able to stay alive like leeches on the walls of the U.S. Capitol because of the monetary pressure directed towards members of the House and Senate. If this health care bill ever passes, it will be akin to a modern miracle.
Last last year I finished Jonathan Rauch's Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working, and anyone with a passion for understanding the problems with our current government's structure and how we might combat them should read it (if you've fallen on hard times, it's available at Google Books). It's the most important book I read last year.
Rauch writes of a phenomenon he calls demosclerosis, or postwar democratic government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt. He argues, convincingly, that it's nothing less than the most critical government issue of our time. Essentially our government has become mired in special interest gridlock, and what's most frightening is that Rauch believes it may be inevitable and irreversible, the natural evolution of our government and its structure. Like a ship whose hull has become crusted over with barnacles, our government has slowed to a crawl.
What demosclerosis means for conservatives is that there is no significant hope of scraping away outmoded or unneeded or counterproductive liberal policies, because nothing old can be jettisoned. What it means for liberals is that there is no significant hope of using government as a progressive tool, because the method of trial and error has broken down.
For Washington and for the broad public, demosclerosis quite possibly means that the federal government is rusting solid and, in the medium and long term, nothing can be done about it. The disease of democratic government is not heart failure but hardening of the arteries.
This doesn't mean the U.S. doesn't have institutions that can't make meaningful progress. Take the business world, and consider what corporations like Google and Amazon and others have been able to do in our free and competitive markets. When people in the U.S. look to government for help, more often than not, they should look to capitalism and free markets for a business solution first (take education as one example).
In many ways the Obama backlash was predictable along many dimensions. Working on his campaign, I encountered more than my fair share of Obamania, starry-eyed supporters with a naive faith that one man could, on the sheer basis of force of personality, rise above the limitations of our government structure and enact reform and legislation with a wave of his hands. I wouldn't give that back, it helped to put my man in the race into the White House (oh McCain, what happened to you?). But this group, especially its numerous young supporters catching political fever for the first time, seemed attached, in many ways, to a man, not an issue, and was bound to have unrealistic expectations.
There's also the natural regression to the mean after the election victory, and the reality of governing in a recession and having to enact unpopular legislation like the Wall Street and automotive bailouts. It seems likely the Democrats will lose seats in the mid-term election, and the press will find a way to spin that, again, as a rebuke of Obama, even though the party holding the Oval Office always loses some seats in their President's first mid-term election (the lone exception being in 2002 when Bush and his Rove-led team rode the crest of the wave of 9/11 anti-terrorism sentiment).
As Maria Kalman notes in And the Pursuit of Happiness at the NYTimes, our bicameral legislature is stacked against the passing of legislation. What if the structure of government is most effective at crushing the dreams of the well-meaning and idealistic people who work all their lives to get into office?
This might all be read as being the rants of an Obama apologist, but though I campaigned for him, I'm not going to give him a free pass. As canny a politician as he is, he has room to improve. First and foremost, I've been dismayed at how buttoned up his Administration has been on many issues, with many a press conference seeming to come a week or a month late. For all the talk of transparency during the campaign, the current Administration has seemed much too cryptic at times, and it's hurt them.
Just a few weeks back I read another article by James Fallows in The Atlantic on just this issue with our government's structure. His article notes that America isn't nearly as bad off as so many articles would have you believe, but that the single greatest obstacle to its future success is the same issue his Atlantic colleague Jonathan Rauch identified: an ineffectual government.
Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative “earmarks,