Barack Obama was reflecting recently on what he’s learned as president. At first, he told CBS, he thought “this job was just about getting the policy right.” But now he realizes that “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
Mitt Romney immediately lashed back: “Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead.”
Romney was correct in one sense. Of course “getting the policy right” is a critical part of any presidency. But he was also profoundly wrong. Telling stories is an essential dimension of leadership. That’s how all presidents — or candidates, for that matter — excite enthusiasm and rally support, reveal their character and define their identity.
Writing last year in The New York Times, professor Drew Westen of Emory University made this argument: “The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be and what should be; to the worldviews they hold; and to the values they hold sacred.”
Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan understood this point very well, and as a candidate, so did Obama. He used stories to introduce himself to voters and shape his image as a real American, despite his dark skin, funny name and foreign father. When he talked about his grandfather who fought in Europe, or his mother who struggled on food stamps, Obama was telling voters: I get it; I know what your lives are like.
Four years later, his opponents are still trying to brand him as somehow foreign, alien, not quite “one of us.” They question his birth certificate, his religion (one in six Americans still say Obama is a Muslim), even his patriotism. Romney surrogate John Sununu summed up this insidious message when he said: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”
That’s why the president’s response to the horrific shootings in Colorado was so important and instructive. Playing the role of chaplain-in-chief, the president visited the victims and their families and described his purpose in very human terms. “I come to them,” he said, “not so much as president as I do as a father and as a husband.”
The president does this often, emphasizing his personal identity over his official one. In Washington, in his first remarks after the shootings, Obama had said: “My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.”
“Father” and “husband” are not political titles. They are not about getting policies right, but getting emotions right. And when Obama talks about hugging his girls “a little tighter tonight,” he is sending a message to other parents, the same message he sent during the campaign four years ago: Our kids might not look like your kids, but we share your fears and your feelings.
The second revealing reference Obama made in Aurora was to quote from the Book of Revelation: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” The only other Democrats to win the presidency in more than 50 years — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — were both churchgoers, both comfortable quoting Scripture, and the president clearly understands the power of biblical verse.
The third story Obama told in Colorado was about heroism, about 21-year-old Stephanie Davis, who saw her best friend, Allie Young, get shot in the neck. Stephanie “had the presence,” said the president, to pull Allie out of the aisle, put her fingers over her friend’s wound and apply pressure the entire time the gunman was shooting.
“They represent what’s best of us,” said Obama, “and they assure us that out of this darkness a brighter day is going to come.”
There are many disadvantages to running for re-election with an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. Obama can’t use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to say “you never had it so good.” But he can use it to tell stories, to convey his values, to connect with voters on a human level. And those stories could save his presidency.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.