"Every political cause has a narrative. And every narrative has a plot." Over lunch in Georgetown last month, a top Democratic spokesman, somebody who works intimately with both the White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton's team, wanted me to understand his frustration with President Obama. He said every plot has a hero. And every hero leaps overwhelming obstacles to accomplish a goal.
"Who's the hero in the White House narrative?" the Democrat asked.
I shrugged; "Barack Obama." Aren't all elections about the candidate, and all White Houses about the president?
The Democrat shook his head. "That's the problem with this White House. Barack Obama is the hero of their narrative, but he's not supposed to be," he said. "The hero of every political narrative should be the voters."
I thought of this exchange while vacationing the last two weeks in Michigan, a state still recovering from the 2008 recession, still limping out of the industrial era, and just now dealing with the decades-long decline of its largest city, Detroit.
Three topics dominate conversations in Michigan: jobs, the weather, and the Detroit Tigers. The dearth of quality jobs gnaws at everybody, especially in northern Michigan, where financially desperate families are selling second- and third-generation cottages—a tangible loss of 20th-century middle-class vibrancy. The weather matters because of its effect on farmers, construction workers, and the tourism industry. The Tigers are a pleasant distraction.
What do these folks hear from the White House and the rest of Washington? Whining, mostly. Obama and his GOP rivals can't seem to tell the story of America without casting themselves as the protagonists.
"They don't do anything except block me and call me names," Obama said in Minneapolis after House Speaker John Boehner threatened a lawsuit over the president's use of executive authority.
"They've decided to sue me for doing my job," Obama groused. The president also has said, "Middle-class families can't wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me. As long as they're doing nothing, I'm not going to apologize for trying to do something."
Obama would argue that he's fighting for Americans and is blocked by a stubbornly conservative House. It's a point worthy of debate, but it's argued poorly, because Obama leans on three words that should be virtually banned from the vocabulary of any leader: I, me, and my.
The day after that speech, a Tawas City, Mich., plumber told me he was a lifelong Democrat who had voted twice for Obama but had grown disenchanted. He pointed to a local newspaper headline about the Minnesota address and said, "It's not about you, Mr. President."
Obama's message also dismisses the enormous number of voters—on some issues, a majority—who don't habitually agree with him, and who will never be won over by condescension.
Boehner has been more careful with his rhetoric, casting his pending lawsuit as a writ for America. "The president has circumvented the American people and their elected representatives through executive action," he said in a July 7 op-ed.
But the suit is clearly personal. Boehner and the Republicans he nominally leads have no interest in cooperating with Obama. The House speaker essentially announced last week that he was finished dealing with the president. "This is a problem of the president's own making," a visibly angry Boehner said of the border crisis. "He's been president for five and a half years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?"
Obama responded with finger-pointing and a blast of first-person pronouns. "So when folks say they're frustrated with Congress, let's be clear about what the problem is. I'm just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again." He added, "The best thing you can say about this Congress—the Republicans in Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives—the best you can say for them this year is that so far they have not shut down the government."
Even Democrats are starting to tire of their president sounding less like a leader than a kindergartener—whiny ("They don't do anything except block me and call me names"); petulant ("So sue me"); and self-absorbed ("I ... me … my").
"The bear is on the loose!" Obama says whenever he shows up at a coffee shop, diner, or bar to mingle with voters. These events are carefully managed so as to not look carefully managed—a gimmick in any president's bag of tricks. But with Obama, the photo opportunities ring false.
First, he piously claims to be above such pettiness. "I am not interested in photo ops," he said amid calls to personally attend to the immigration crisis on the Texas border.
Second, the White House has a habit of making the mingling about Obama. "I think, frankly, we've all been through a cold and bitter winter and the bear has cabin fever," explained Obama friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. "His cabin is a little bit bigger and harder to escape than most."
Pity the president? No. In fact, White House officials, stop talking about him. And, Mr. President, put a muzzle on "I," "me," and "my."
Obama's slide in popularity will be permanent unless he realizes that the story of his presidency is not about him. It's certainly not about the GOP. It's about the people in Michigan and throughout the rest of the country who face enormous obstacles—and struggle heroically to overcome them.