To Professional Writers Who Second-guess America's 'Story Teller In Chief': Knock It Off

Despite what the writers of the world want to believe, an out-of-the-blue come-to-Jesus speech from President Obama would fail just as disastrously as Carter's now infamous "crisis-of-confidence speech."
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Which American demographic is most frustrated with President Obama at the moment?

Right-wing Republicans, who think he is a socialist?

Far-left Democrats, who say he is a sellout?


Professional writers, who believed that Obama had been elected writer-in-chief, and that suddenly The White House was going to be the source of Whitmanesque words.

And corporate communication executives, who allowed themselves to hope that Obama's presidency was going to validate the power of words in leadership, and thus elevate their own status in the world.

And public relations people, who believe Obama's presidency would never have reached this low ebb if they had been in charge of the White House communication office.

I know: I live with these people. As editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, which is read mostly by speechwriters, and as a blogger on communication issues, I talk to these people every day.

"Communicators," is the overarching term they use to describe themselves. And communicators, these days, are frustrated. (Well, actually, right-wing communicators aren't frustrated. They're happy. But being writers, they won't be caught repeating the cliché, "I told you so." So they pretend to professional objectivity. Like the oil company speechwriter who asked his colleagues in a LinkedIn Group rhetorically, "Has the 'master orator' meme run its course?")

But the moderate and liberal communicators? Mad as Monday morning quarterbacks.

An Obama voter and longtime communication pro emailed me as the smoke began to clear after the debt-ceiling debate. "I just had to vent about this," he said, "and you seemed like the right ear for it."

I think he should have accompanied his speech to the nation with some Ross Perot-style visual aids. I'd envision three charts that show 1) what his plan would mean, 2) what the GOP "cut, cap and balance" plan would mean, and 3) the compromise he'd be willing to accept (and what that would mean). THEN he could have asked voters to let their Congresspersons know which one they want (kind of like "America's Got Plans"). He had the chance to completely frame the discussion and didn't do it.

What else could he have done? Well, where's the candidate who used technology to defeat John McCain? Why hasn't Obama created an iPhone app for governing? He had a great one for the campaign. His operatives could also have convened coffee klatches across the nation -- much as he did during the campaign -- where people could discuss the options and weigh in electronically. I don't understand why he has done NONE of this.

Just a few days later appeared Drew Westen's provocative New York Times op-ed accusing Obama of being too psychologically wishy-washy to tell a coherent story. Then came Jonathan Chait's New Republic retort accusing Westen of being an opportunistic snake-oil salesman of storytelling. Next, onetime Mayor Richard M. Daley speechwriter Dan Conley batted them both down in his color commentary on "the great speechwriting spat."

And most recently, ad man Jim Solisch had an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor comparing Obama to post-modernist writers like Faulkner and Joyce. Like them, "He offered no plot line. No story arc. There were no heroes and no villains. Just flawed humans mucking around in a complicated world."

Solisch concludes: "I hope our Story Teller in Chief finds the plot soon and tells us a story we can believe in, a story a majority of the country can rally around."

Well, don't all our inner children long to be told a wonderful bedtime story with a happy ending? I, too, hold out hope that President Obama can find some kind of rhetorical restart button and wash away all the smoke and fog and dirt and grime that's gotten all over this presidency in its first three years. But I also know that we are just flawed humans mucking around in a complicated world.

There is a precedent for a presidential communication mulligan.

It's the same but disastrous attempt by President Carter to reframe his own presidency at a similar juncture.

In a televised speech to the nation, Carter informed Americans that their confidence had waned, that their values were bankrupt and that their lives had lost all meaning. "We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose," he said.

And what did Americans need to do in order to solve its "spiritual crisis"? It needed to embark on the "most massive peacetime commitment" in its history, by creating alternative fuels and achieving energy independence.

A pretty clear story. And pretty strongly told. (Watch the speech. It's intense to the point of eeriness.) But it wasn't just too little too late. It was presumptuous. It was absurdly heavy-handed. Telling Americans their lives were bereft of spiritual meaning was a vast overreach. He was our president, not our preacher. And prescribing a single solution to a crisis he had just invented with his words -- it was an impossibly arrogant thing to do.

Despite what the writers of the world want to believe, an out-of-the-blue come-to-Jesus speech from President Obama would fail just as disastrously as Carter's now infamous "crisis-of-confidence speech."

We can argue over the drinking table about how Obama should have framed his presidency at the outset.

But I'm afraid that the only way he can play once-upon-a-time at this late stage is if there's a shocking disaster -- financial, natural or ballistic -- that's profound and terrifying enough to make Americans really willing to sit like children and hear a simple story of true heroes, real villains and the proverbial but elusive "story we can all believe in."

I don't wish for a thing like that. My writer buddies don't, either.

And we all ought to criticize Obama with more care, or the catastrophic crisis that clarifies the story could begin next November.

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