This Time President Obama Tells The Story

Isaiah J. Poole

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Robert Borosage rates President Obama’s speech against his “citizen’s guide” to common-sense standards for the budget debate.

Earlier this week at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry wondered if President Obama lost his ability to “tell the story”—in other words, put his policy decisions inside a narrative that gives Americans a compelling vision of where he’s headed and why they should follow him.

Candidate Obama had an ability to tell a story of America that captured national striving, greatness, accomplishment, and triumph without ignoring struggles, disappointments, disagreement, and loss. Take, for example, the night he was elected president of the United States. Barack Obama told a story about an African-American woman, Ann Nixon Cooper. Cooper was 106 years old, lived in Georgia and vigorously supported his candidacy. She was born in 1902, a time that President-elect Obama described as “just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” … Never before had a president invited us to see our national history through the lens of a disenfranchised black woman, but in doing so Obama gave us a way of understanding our national story as one rooted in growing inclusiveness and active government action on behalf of equality

But Harris-Perry, just like the rest of us, have watched in dismay as Obama’s message seemed to get muddied by the inside-the-Beltway political machinations and his impulse to treat his opponents on the right as simply well-meaning people with a different point of view who could be reasoned with rather than the radical political extremists that many of them are. What was lost from the White House bully pulpit as a result was a progressive contrast to such neat, simplistic and tragically flawed conservative story lines as, “Families have to live within their means and cut their budgets in hard times, so the federal government should do the same.”

In today’s address at George Washington University on his approach to reducing the federal deficit, President Obama begins to address that problem. Yes, he takes stands on such programs as Medicare and Medicaid that are in sharp contrast to the Medicare privatization scheme and Medicaid block-grant plan put forth by conservative darling Rep. Paul Ryan. He also made a bold statement in favor of asking wealthy Americans to take a hit for the sake of deficit reduction, the opposite of the additional tax breaks that conservatives are pushing.

But Obama also made clear that progressives have in mind a very different America from the America that, in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s words, “can’t have” Social Security as we know it or is blithe about shifting health care costs onto seniors (while giving private insurance companies yet another windfall). Obama sketched this vision very early in his speech:

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

The conservative approach to deficit reduction would have us turn our backs on this heritage. In reacting to Obama’s speech today, Campaign for America’s Future’s co-director Roger Hickey gave Obama credit for “clearly opposing the Republican call to end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. The president is absolutely right that the way to get costs under control is to reform our overall health care system – not on putting a lid on Medicare and Medicaid and shifting the costs to vulnerable seniors, the disabled and the impoverished. And we are pleased that the president reiterated the simple fact that Social Security is not contributing to the deficit and should not be part of the deficit reduction discussion.”

The group’s other co-director, Robert Borosage, said that “the agreement to cut $38 billion in spending this year and his acceptance that we must begin sharp reductions next year are mistaken concessions.” Nonetheless, “with inequality at Gilded Age levels, any sensible plan for deficit reduction must insist the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share. Similarly, with the military now spending nearly as much as the rest of the world combined, no feasible deficit reduction plan can exclude defense. We believe that more deficit reduction should come from top-end tax increases, and more savings should come from Defense than the president suggests, but at least he puts them on the table, rather than excluding them as the Republican plan would do.”

The president’s speech is not the speech I or many progressives would have written, but to the extent that it draws the contrast between the America that we are fighting to protect and the destruction that would be caused by conservative policies, his speech has done a service. One of the most important things we can do in the coming weeks is to keep cutting through the fog of right-wing rhetoric and inside-the-Beltway political cowardice and, as Harris-Perry says, “take back the narrative.”

It is a mistake to think false storylines are easily forgotten or that they can be swiftly overturned by simple recitation of countervailing facts. Today’s observance of the Civil War is a perfect example. Reconstruction was a short-lived effort and Confederates were given leave to (re)write the story of the Civil War from their own perspective. Thus Southern states still fly the flag of traitors and school kids are still taught that it was the “War of Northern Aggression.”

So what are we to do? It is time to take back the narrative. Time to tell our stories.

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