How is it possible that the same man who swept the country -- and the world -- off their feet now appears to be stumbling? In one year, how could President Obama go from providing the magic touch for every campaign, including his own, to being unable even to salvage Massachusetts for the Democrats?
Amidst all the analyses of health care gone amuck, and banks making off like bandits, the simple fact that people do not make decisions based on policy seems to have been forgotten. Correction: the Democrats perennially forget this important truth; the Republicans get it, hence all the successful attack ads. For reasons I have never understood, Republicans understand that voters make decisions based on their emotions, while Democrats behave as if policy papers (such as those I and my colleagues at Brookings write) have the capacity to move millions.
Neurological evidence suggests what we all know intuitively: that emotions drive political decisions. In his book The Political Brain, clinical psychologist Dr. Drew Weston proves scientifically that decision making, including political decision making, is an emotional -- not a rational -- process. Dr. Weston explored the consequences for political narratives, of this fact, only to be largely ignored by the Democratic Party. Further evidence coming out of Harvard and MIT (notably Dr. Rebecca Saxe's lab) indicates that visual images also have the capacity to shape opinions, especially when accompanied by narrative content. That is why the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan did more to bring war to life than any number of books ever could.
Back to our beleaguered President. During his brilliant campaign, President Obama wove a powerful narrative about the American we all hope for. And that hope was grounded in a very powerful reality: President Obama's own inspiring life story. Through the potent example of his own life, President Obama enabled us to believe the best about America, and, therefore, about ourselves. That uplifting narrative - essentially equating the promise of America with his extraordinary life story -- swept candidate Obama into the presidency.
But once in office, President Obama could no longer make his life story the national narrative. As E.J. Dionne and others have noted, the President has no narrative - either for domestic or foreign policy. All we know about Afghanistan is that we are increasing troop levels and containing the insurgency, but why, and what the President's vision for the future of that country is, remain a mystery. The President has begun to rant at the banks and the bonuses, but that also does not a narrative make. I suspect that the core still lies in the President's own remarkable story: we all want to believe that America is a country where hard work makes anything possible. Trouble is, too many people are out of work. And many of them face impossible choices between housing, education for their children, food, and medicine, while a minority escapes with salaries and bonuses that seem obscene by comparison. We all know there is something wrong with this picture.
On Wednesday night, I hope the President will not explore the fine points of health care or job creation, plan. I hope that he will not re-introduce himself. Rather, I hope he will re-introduce America, through his vision of its future. I hope the President will tell us a story we will remember, without being afraid to tug at our heartstrings. His knowledge and command of policy is impressive, but mastering the intricacies of health care is one thing, and leading the country to understand why improved health care is essential for America is another. He can do both, beginning Wednesday night.