By MATT BAI
Like romantic comedies and superhero blockbusters, the modern presidency has evolved into a reliable form of dramatic narrative. A candidate comes into office brandishing a broad theme — a vow to clean up government, perhaps, orto fearlessly prune it back — and then lays out one or two big proposals to make it real. In time, of course, a presidency tends to sprawl as events intrude. Bill Clinton couldn’t have imagined he would spend so much of his two terms fending off resurgent Republicans, just as George W. Bush didn’t envision going to war. But at least for those first several months, while the White House controls its own fate, the presidency is supposed to unfold in discrete chapters, each building atop the last. Both Ronald Reagan and Bush began with an almost single-minded push for tax cuts during their opening months, while Clinton opened with an economic program and then a monthslong drive for health care reform. The simple premise here is that every new presidency is a story; the more muddled and erratic the storyline, the harder it is for the public to follow along and the less likely the chances of reaching a satisfying end.
Barack Obama is a born storyteller, which makes it all the more confounding that as president he refuses to inhabit a neat political narrative. Obama’s themes are clear enough (salvaging the American economy, reversing the Bush years), but his legislative priorities seem to rotate in and out like so many suitcases on a conveyor belt. One day his presidency hinges on health care, then he’s lobbying for a cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions and then he’s out there trying to re-regulate the financial world or sell a new treaty with the Russians. “An administration about everything is an administration about nothing” is the way the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan put it in The Wall Street Journal. Colin Powell made a similar point, telling John King of CNN, “I think one of the cautions that has to be given to the president — and I’ve talked to some of his people about this — is that you can’t have so many things on the table that you can’t absorb it all.”
Some of this itinerancy must be attributed to the sheer scope of the wreckage Obama inherited. When you’ve got failing banks and corporate giants, two ongoing wars, melting icecaps and mountainous health care costs, it’s hard to see what gets pushed to the margins. It’s also true, though, that Obama’s style reflects, whether he means it to or not, a cultural shift on the importance of narrative. Americans acclimated to clicking around hundreds of cable channels or Web pages experience the world less chronologically than their parents did. The most popular books now — business guides like “Good to Great” or social explorations like “The Tipping Point” — allow the casual reader to absorb their insights in random order or while skimming whole chapters.
Once we listened to cohesive albums like, say, Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” which kicked off with the snare hit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” almost like a starter pistol, and worked its way toward the melancholy postscript of “Desolation Row.” Now your iPod might jump mindlessly from “Desolation Row” to “Tombstone Blues,” or from Dylan to Rihanna. The shrink-wrapped record has given way to the downloaded single. Wasn’t this one reason for all the tributes to Michael Jackson? It’s not that “Thriller” was really as singularly awesome as so many of us thought it was in high school. It’s more that we know there may never be an album that epic again.
Obama is the nation’s first shuffle president. He’s telling lots of stories at once, and in no particular order. His agenda is fully downloadable. If what you care most about is health care, then you can jump right to that. If global warming gets you going, then click over there. It’s not especially realistic to imagine that politics could cling to a linear way of rendering stories while the rest of American culture adapts to a more customized form of consumption. Obama’s ethos may disconcert the older guard in Washington, but it’s probably comforting to a lot of younger voters who could never be expected to listen to successive tracks, in the same order, over and over again.
Such an approach does, however, invite significant peril. Random play may popularize your music in the aggregate, but it doesn’t foster the same kind of investment in the songs themselves. U2 may have more fans than ever, but that doesn’t mean these listeners can name half the tracks on the band’s latest release.
Similarly, Obama retains higher favorability ratings than any of his recent predecessors — about 60 percent, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month. But only 46 percent in the same poll were either “quite” or “extremely” confident that Obama had the right policies to revive the economy, and only 33 percent volunteered support for his health care plan. That last number grew to 55 percent when the broad plan was explained to voters, which means that even the outlines of what is arguably Obama’s most important proposal haven’t been absorbed by the public. In other words, most Americans seem to like the president, but they’re not engaged with the specific arguments he’s making.
And should the president prevail on one or another of his proposals, he might find that acclaim, in this digital moment, can be ephemeral. Landmark legislative proposals, like hit singles, can come to seem interchangeable and dispensable. Creating a new health care framework, after more than a half-century of talking about it, would be a monumental achievement for any president, but even that might seem somehow small when viewed as only one in a series of competing storylines. What about carbon emissions? How about reining in Wall Street? Too much comes at us now, too devoid of context, for any one thing to matter as much as it probably should. In a society on shuffle, we’re always left to wonder what’s next.