Why Obama's Presidency Is No Match for His Oratory

Barack Obama believes in the power of heroic narrative. As a teenager he loved the comic-book exploits of Conan the Barbarian and Spider-Man; as an adult he wrote a best-selling autobiography that reads like a coming-of-age novel. For nearly two decades his political adviser has been David Axelrod, whom I first met in 1983 when he was a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "Axe" got the scoops, but he could also package them into smooth page-one pieces. As a media consultant, he has a gift for storytelling. Axelrod records his day by scribbling in a large black manuscript book—the kind a novelist might use.

It was The Narrative—Obama's life and the telling of it—that produced the Obama presidency. Many if not most of its key moments were speeches: Chicago in 2002, Boston in 2004, Philadelphia and Denver in 2008. The crafting of this story was always a joint Obama-Axelrod enterprise. Last week they unveiled a new chapter in the saga. Our hero has been attacked by all the evil creatures in Washington and vows to tame them, either by his charm or with his bare hands. He promises to create jobs, cut the deficit, cut more taxes (but raise them on the rich), and finally redeem his promise to end the corrupt, insipid, and selfish ways of the capital.

In the House chamber and on TV, it worked. Obama was forceful and shrewd, amiable and reasonable. He commanded the room (except for the stone-faced members of the Supreme Court) with ease. Judging from the instant polls that night, the public loved it. As a piece of political stagecraft, it impressed me. But in the cold light of day, I do have a "but"—in fact, more than one.

First, the attribute that gave the speech its force also gives me pause. The address sometimes seemed more about Obama himself than about the country. At times it was not so much his thoughts on the state of the Union as it was his thoughts on the state of his presidency, and on our view of him. "Now, I am not naive," the president said. "I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era." And later: "I have never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone." (Now he tells us!) Then, in the closing flourish: "I don't quit." (You'd better not: you have a four-year contract.)

In the post-Oprah age, we not only accept but also even demand this kind of intimate, almost confessional style in our leaders and public figures. Most Americans like Obama as a person, and most want him to succeed as a president. But he has to remember that he's supposed to be a character in our story—not the other way around.

Unlike his perfectly paced memoirs, Obama's presidency is not a narrative whose plot he can dictate, or even control. It's not a James Cameron movie or a bildungsroman. It is an accretion of actions, decisions, and confrontations—some of them unexpected and unwelcome—in the real world. Reality, especially the bureaucratic and governmental one, resists the smooth-flowing hero story, and it is annoyingly prosaic. At this point even Obama's supporters no longer yearn for a superhero. The country will settle for a competent administration, and it isn't clear that this is one.

It is one thing to call out recalcitrant Republicans, which was good theater. It's another to outmaneuver Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Lex Luthor of the Senate. With a sepulchral chuckle, he has patiently, ploddingly deployed the filibuster and other parliamentary rules to block the president's agenda. Obama did not make clear how he will change this, good speech notwithstanding. Doing so will mean somehow luring McConnell and his GOP colleagues into cutting deals—or, failing that, taking them on in earnest. Obama has shown skill at neither.

The same is true on other fronts. He can vow to control government spending, but the administration's performance so far is mixed. He can vow to keep us safe, but the Christmas bomber showed the holes in our defenses. He can promise to focus on creating jobs, but he must accept that a yearlong focus on a health-care bill was a mistake. Obama conceded he had explained the bill poorly, as if that were the only problem with it. He said (with a tinge of self-praise) that he was trying to achieve a goal that had eluded seven presidents. But he could not bring himself to admit to any flaws in a piece of legislation that is widely, correctly bemoaned as being compromised by politics and payoffs. He certainly didn't concede error. That wasn't in the narrative.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.