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Barack Obama's Story Telling Problems

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 10 2010

Credit: The White House

The theme of last night's event at the New York Society for Ethical Culture's elegant building just west of Manhattan's Central Park was, officially, the somewhat objective question, "Obama: Change We Can Still Believe In?" But the vibe of the evening turned out to be more about relationships than distanced assessments. Whether by providence or a bit of good stage setting, the song that was playing when panelists Katrina vanden Heuvel and Ari Melber of the Nation, the New York Times Gretchen Morgenson, Politico's Ben Smith, and Demos' Ben Barber took to the stage actually seemed more on point. "You've got a friend..." sang James Taylor. On this night, to consider the future of the Obama years, the question was, well, does he?

He does, was the consensus of the evening. And Barack Obama has the poll numbers to prove it. But the sentiment on stage and in the crowd was still that Obama hasn't been much of a pal to the progressive movement in his first 13 months in office. Of course, we've talked here about this question of whether and why all the considerable momentum of the Obama campaign, ginned up and harnessed by the Internet in large part, was allowed to float off into the ether after Election Day. There was a rehashing of that last night, for sure. (13 million names! And for what!)

But Demos' Barber offered a newish take on the question of just where the grassroots aspect of the Obama enterprise went off course. "Narrative is a way of explaining to ourselves the nature of the world that we live in," he suggested, and argued that Obama has failed to provide one that would give his progressive allies a story book to go by. And the web, in particular, loves a good story.

Or, to be more accurate, in his relative silence, Obama has offered a narrative that runs counter to his campaign's. The Obama '08 effort was, in the campaign and candidate's telling, all about the collective, and the potential of people-powered politics. His was a networked world view, where organized individuals could create meaningful change. Then came the inauguration. Old Washington hands took positions of high-power in his administration. (Is that really Larry Summers?) It started to look like any ol' presidency. "We've bought into the narrative," argued Barber, "that the power of the people is illegitimate, and the power of the corporations, banks, and special interests are legitimate."

(Lest you think this was just one old lefty talking, Morgenson, a Times' financial journalist, attested to the fact that the debate around financial reforms in Washington is shaped almost entirely by the big banks. Where's the public conversation about that weighty issue?, she asked.)

All that said, there was still a considerable level of hope in the crowd, and on the stage. Nation editor vanden Heuvel celebrated the online self-organizing of groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the PCCC to bring the health care public option back into the legislative debate as an example of the "re-mobiliz[ation]" of grassroots left, a reinvigoration driven by a good narrative. But "more spirited, more nimble, more creative, and more disciplined organizing" is going to need to come from progressive quarters, she argued.

And until then, suggested the evening, those on the left would be better off friending themselves than looking for more leadership from the White House. "We are still waiting," said Barber, tweaking an Obama campaign slogan, "for the ones we were waiting for."