White House

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
Add to Briefcase
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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.