Democrats Should Stop Blaming the 'Narrative'

In their election pre-mortems, Democrats and others blame President Obama and his White House team for "losing the narrative." I confess that in my nine years in this city, I still haven't figured out what a "narrative" really is, and whether any one institution can "control" it. Certainly, on some issues, different parties gain an advantage based on how voters process information, but in recent history, events, not persons, dictate the stories that we tell each other. The best politicians figure out how to play off exigencies and contingencies. 

Let's bring this out of the mooley-mooley realm and take up a specific example: the economy. Obama is said to have lost control of the economic narrative. If he only MESSAGED a certain way, then maybe people wouldn't be so upset.

But when Obama did try to address the state of the economy, he did so in a way that predicted a future that did not come to pass. That's because he genuinely believed his vision of the future would come to pass. Still, he was careful--always pointing out that there were tough times ahead--but he could not help but be optimistic. That's what presidents do. That's what we hire presidents to do. (That, and responding to crises.)

In February of 2009, Obama's economic team predicted an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent by 2010. Voters, listening to their president, EXPECTED the unemployment rate to start dropping. The rate did not drop.

When Obama's predictions turned out not to be valid, voters grew skeptical. Should Obama have said: "Hey, uh, folks, the economy, it sucks. It's going to suck for a long time. Deal with it"? That would have been entertaining, but, again, that's not what presidents do. 

Other members of the government didn't help. In March of 2009, Ben Bernanke famously saw "green shoots" in the soil. He must have been color blind.

Obama, in April of 2009, talked about seeing "glimmers of hope." Expectations rose again.

Zoom ahead to early this year: Obama said that the economy had "turned a corner." Technically true, but if voters are listening, they're taking the president's messaging with many grains of salt.

In April, Obama said "the worst is over." But then came news that growth had stagnated, and that the mortgage industry was in (perpetual) crisis, that businesses just weren't hiring.

So if voters are skeptical about what comes out of Obama's mouth, it's not because he's not saying the right things. The economy just isn't recovering at the pace that Obama and his advisers expected it would. Add to this the drumbeat of doom that counter-pressures independents--the right wing echo-sphere's charge that Obama ruined the economy--and it's not hard to see how soft Democrats and independents aren't going to take this president's word as bond.

Obama didn't lie. He genuinely expected the economy to do better. He genuinely expected that people would recognize the signs of a recovering economy. He did not expect there to be what Ezra Klein called an "expectations bubble"--the idea that people have unrealistic expectations about what an economic recovery would look like. But the plain truth of the matter is that the economy is still very sluggish. And the guy in charge is going to get blamed until it gets better.

It's comforting for Democrats to think that if they had only gotten the message right--if they had figured out how to tune out Fox News, if they had sold the stimulus as the largest tax cut in history, if, if, if--voters wouldn't be so pessimistic. But events--pesky events, things that no one can control--keep getting in the way. Health care was a messy process, and process shapes policy in a way that it never has before, thanks to the instant feedback loop of the Net.

Voters were right to expect something different from a president who promised to govern above the fray, but then endorsed typical (fairly anodyne, in retrospect) compromises like the "Cornhusker Kickback." Of course, if the President messaged in a vacuum, it would be easier to explain to people the benefits of the new health care law. But there's never been a vacuum. The Bully Pulpit has been descending from the heavens for a long time. Presidents cannot simply speak and expect to be heard. The best they can do is speak, and hope that their words match what people are feeling.