The POLITICO's John Harris dons his J. John François-Lyotard clothing to conjure up the seven meta-narratives that the White House is most afraid of. In rough order, they are:
1. Obama is spending too much and doesn't seem to care about it.
2. Obama is too cool for school -- too Spocklike -- unable to make Clintonian emotional connections on key issues.
3. Obama's political team is insular and mean; Chicago-style brawlers.
4. Obama doesn't push hard enough; he doesn't follow through; he takes the path of least resistance on everything.
5. Americans want their POTUS to be an exceptionalist, and Obama ain't an exceptionalist.
6. Obama defers to Democrats in Congress too much.
7. Obama is too arrogant.
True, some of these (admittedly contradictory) narratives play out on cable news, and in the political trade press. What Harris does not tell us whether any of the narratives ring true -- whether the perceptions are fair -- whether the press is responsible for developing them. Let's try and take each narrative on its own terms.
1. Obama and spending: Harris teases out a good political question, which is whether the president's '10 emphasis on fiscal restraint will further depress Democrats and, by virtue of the austerity transitive effect, make Americans feel more pain. Left out of this question is whether Obama is actually responsible for the spending; the complex interplay between the Fed's balance sheet and domestic purse strings; the stabilizing effect of the stimulus; an evaluation of whether people who say they're frustrated about the deficit actually care about the deficit (and aren't simply using the deficit as a proxy for ideological objections.). Still, Harris is right about the salience of this narrative for independents.
2. This is a McLaughlin-group meta-narrative that has no resonance beyond Nebraska Avenue NW.
3. This narrative comes from conservative activists only -- and it has resonance among conservative activists only. It's fairly transparently silly.
4. I hear this from liberal elites, but his doggedness in the health care fight and his uncompromising delay in announcing his Afghanistan decision sort of belies this narrative factually. The scope of the coming changes to our health care system are enormous; Obama's poking Congress in the eye by bringing emissions targets to Copenhagen. On Afghanistan, he's not taking the path of least resistance, at least politically. Same goes for trying the 9/11 conspiracists in federal court. GTMO is well on its way to being closed -- if it had not been for the administration's follow through, GTMO would still be open in 2012 -- a virtual impossibility right now. That might not be the best course, policy-wise, but it's Obama's course, and he's pursuing it as aggressively as the law and diplomacy will allow.
5. Another conservative meta-narrative, one that resonates among the Cheneyites in the GOP. It is rejected by most of Washington, and it seems to have been rejected by most non-conservative Americans. Not sure what Obama's foreign policy narrative actually is just yet..and how it all hangs together... but trying to foist this historicist framework on it doesn't seem to tell us much.
6. Republicans will run in 2010 on this perception. Whether Obama defers to the Pelosi Congress "too much" is a question that cannot be evaluated without deciding whether (a) the Pelosi Congress is united about important questions and (b) whether their policies are correct. This is more of a question than a narrative at this point. It's also standard-Denny's-restaurant fare for politics.
7. This one doesn't bother me as it might bother others who bemoan the presence of characterological analysis in politics. It does matter how Obama comes off -- whether he plays as president -- whether his style intersects with the times. This narrative is different than narrative number 2 in that the question is not whether a president is overexposed, it's how the president decides to expose himself: what he says, and whether he follows through. This is a character question, and one that, rightly, will be debated over the next three years.