Every political failure in a democracy begins with bad storytelling. When false narratives and incoherent story lines dominate public conversation, poor decisions are sure to follow.
So it is with the presidency of Barack Obama. This brilliant orator's inability to tell a simple tale of how America has ended up mired in an economic recession blighting the lives of millions borders upon pathology.
Writing in the New York Times, psychologist Drew Westen imagines how Obama might have framed it: "I know you're scared and angry," he could have said. "Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn't work out."
Ah, but that would be needlessly confrontational. It would be playing the "blame game." Every Republican commentator from sea to shining sea agrees that telling the plain story of how George W. Bush turned the balanced budgets he inherited from Bill Clinton into a $10.6 trillion National Debt, an ongoing $1.3 trillion annual deficit, and an economy in free fall is terribly rude.
They prefer a bogus tale of wild over-spending by the current administration, which the White House does little to correct. A born conciliator, Obama seemingly hates to make anybody angry, with the result that hardly anybody's happy with his leadership, while his GOP rivals treat him with open contempt.
"The real conundrum," Westen adds "is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him ... That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes -- but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right."
The failure, however, isn't Obama's alone. With a few signal exceptions, journalists aren't doing much better. Part of the problem is the lazy he said/she said convention reporters use to cover their ignorance and to avoid criticism, mainly from the right.
Economist Dean Baker, one of the few -- along with Paul Krugman -- who warned against the real estate bubble that caused Wall Street's near-collapse in 2008, regularly skewers pusillanimous reporting on his "Beat the Press" weblog.
He recently quoted a CBS News report archly chiding Obama for blaming "policies inherited from his predecessor's administration for the soaring debt." The site notes that Obama "singles out:
-- 'two wars we didn't pay for'
-- 'a prescription drug program for seniors ... we didn't pay for'
-- 'tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that were not paid for'
[Obama] goes on to blame the recession, and its resulting decrease in tax revenue on businesses, for making fewer sales, and more employees being laid off. He says the recession also resulted in more government spending due to increased unemployment insurance payments."
But, contrary to CBS's presentation, these aren't debatable assertions by a politician seeking to deflect criticism. They are facts, and should be reported as such.
Some more facts: Total U.S. government spending under Bush rose almost 88 percent, from roughly $2 trillion in FY2002 to $3.5 trillion in FY2009. On Obama's watch, it's increased another 7.2 percent
Also, celebrity pundits too often impose authoritative-sounding false narratives on events they scarcely comprehend. Consider New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example. A three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and ubiquitous TV talking-head, the mustachioed savant recently delivered a characteristically grandiose meditation upon the world's ills.
"America's credit-driven capitalist model," he opined "has suffered a warning heart attack and needs a total rethink." Passing over the absurdly mixed, essentially meaningless metaphor, we come to Friedman's analysis of the eurozone's fiscal woes:
"Large government welfare programs in some European countries, without the revenue to finance them from local production, eventually led to a piling up of sovereign debt -- mostly owed to European banks -- and then a lender revolt. The producer-savers in northern Europe are now drawing up a new deal with the overspenders -- the PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain."
Have Times editors forgotten the celebrated Irish "Celtic Tiger" economy? Europe's woes originated in the same speculative housing bubble that sank Wall Street. You'd expect a fellow whose wife's family trust recently went through the largest real estate bankruptcy in U.S. history -- decreasing almost $4 billion in value -- to recognize that.
Of the countries named, only Greece fits Friedman's description. Previous to 2008, Ireland and Spain ran substantial budget surpluses, Italy and Portugal only modest deficits. While fiscally conservative, "producer-saver" Germany also has a comprehensive social safety net. France too.
It's more socially acceptable to blame welfare bums, though, than bankers.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.