Mr. ‘I, Me, My’: Obama Oughta Know He’s Not the Hero

A successful White House crafts its narrative around the struggles of Americans, not the president.

National Journal
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Ron Fournier
July 15, 2014, 6:51 a.m.

“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.