Citing Reagan’s mastery of symbols and gestures, Obama remarked that “going forward as president, the symbols and gestures—what people are seeing coming out of this office—are at least as important as the policies we put forward.”
What can one say about the sheer silliness of this? Stories, symbols, and catchwords are important, but they merely dramatize how a politician sees the country and what a politician hopes to do. They can enliven what he wants to do—but if what he wants to do runs contrary to what people want, or what can be done, and if the results of his policies do not measure up to what he promises, and what people want, then even the most artful prose cannot rescue a president. Roosevelt’s “story” was successful because during his first term the unemployment rate was cut almost in half. Some of his programs failed, but by no means three-fourths of them. That first term saw tough banking reforms (which convinced the electorate that FDR was on their side rather than the banks), Social Security, the progressive income tax, the National Labor Relations Act, and so on. If unemployment had remained at 25 percent in 1936, then Roosevelt’s nostrums about “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself” would be recalled with the same scorn as Hoover’s assurances of prosperity.
Reagan, of course, preached optimism during the height of the recession of 1981-82, but he also insisted that by “staying the course” and retaining his policies, Americans would get through the recession. One can argue about who really deserves credit, Reagan or Volcker, for pulling America out of the stagflation from which it had suffered during the 1970s, but the fact is that it happened. And when Reagan ran in 1984 under the slogan, “It’s morning in America,” it wasn’t mindless optimism. America had gotten through a kind of night. So these politicians told stories, but the stories bore some relation to what they were doing, and what they were doing had the results that people wanted.
In fact, Obama had run for president and governed on the basis of a story—a story he articulated in his Democratic convention keynote address in 2004—of an America that is not red, blue, white, black, or brown, but a “United States of America.” This appeal resonated during the election, but as early as January 2009, when he was informed that Republicans as a bloc would oppose his stimulus program, he should have known that it had little basis in reality. He clung to it anyway. It governed his attitude toward Wall Street and toward the hard-line Republican opposition; and it led him to jeopardize his presidency and the country’s future. Yes, there was a failure of communication, but it was not because the President didn’t have a story. It was because the story was pure fiction.
Suskind’s book is being widely portrayed as critical of the Obama administration, but if you read the entire book, its message is that during Obama’s first two years he was foiled by his own inexperience as a manager and by a staff that didn’t do good by him, but that after the Democratic defeat in 2010 he learned from his failure. He replaced the toxic assets on his staff, and he set out on a new positive course, epitomized by the December deal accepting the Bush tax cuts in exchange for aid to the unemployed, and the appointment of William Daley as chief of staff. After a “clean sweep” of his White House staff, Obama, Suskind writes, was “now firmly along in a more dynamic ‘I’ll just do it myself’ model of leadership.”
In this respect, Suskind’s book is already dated. What the President has done since the November election has, if anything, worsened the country’s and his own situation. He made the December deal with the Republicans, he told Suskind, because he recognized “that, at this juncture, the country will feel better about itself … if they see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on anything.” But by robbing himself of revenues, Obama set the stage for the disastrous budget battles this year that have led to budget cuts at a time of a steep downturn, which have caused unemployment to rise again. His “clean sweep” left the two main proponents of a fictive centrism, Jarrett and Geithner, in place, and brought in a new ally in Daley. The new leadership has reinforced Obama’s worst political instincts, which became evident during the negotiations over the debt ceiling. Continued Republican intransigence and the looming election of 2012 may have finally energized him, and caused him to abandon his “story” of a united America, but it may be too late. Suskind may have set out to write a book about a president learning from his mistakes, but he may have ended up writing one about a failed presidency.
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