In a brief stop in Wilmington on Jan. 17, on his triumphal train ride into Washington for the inaugural, President Barack Obama told a story. Actually, he told a number of stories, from the personal history of Vice President Joseph Biden and his triumph over hardship, to the brief stories about a truck driver, a machinist, a nurse's aide and a teacher he'd met on the campaign trail.
"Theirs are the stories that will drive me in the days ahead, and this is the moment that we must come together for the sake of our country," Obama said. "For while we come from different places, as Americans we share a common story. That story began over two centuries ago in Philadelphia, where we started today's journey, and where are forefathers declared the birth of our nation and the creation of our Constitution."
For the 47 percent of Americans who voted for Obama's opponent, the reference to "a common story" animating his administration may sound strange to the ears. But it is impossible to understand the new president unless his brilliant use of narrative is first grasped. It is a potent political strategy that has not been used this well since the White House was occupied by the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told the Chicago Tribune last year that Obama has "a narrative reach" and a talent for story telling that reminds him of the late president. Reagan "made other people a part of his own narrative, and that's what Obama is doing," Cannon said. "By doing it, it expands his reach because he isn't necessarily just another partisan Democrat."
Indeed, in January 2008, Obama noted how Reagan "changed the trajectory" of America, put the country on a "fundamentally different path," when the nation was ready for it. "He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing," Obama said.
Any effort by religious conservatives or free market advocates to counter Obama's agenda in the cultural or economic spheres will have to come to grips with the way in which the new president is using the grand narratives of American history -- and key figures like Washington, Lincoln and King -- to connect and inspire supporters who see the Obama phenomenon really more as a social movement than political campaign. Obama the story teller has tapped into powerful currents of feeling, touched the deepest aspirations of millions, in a way that has given him tremendous political momentum.
If religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative to "change the trajectory." No small task.
When Obama invokes, as he did in his inaugural address, Washington's inspiring words at Valley Forge about "hope and virtue," it is not merely a matter of the new president finding a politically expedient way to link current troubles to the American revolutionary struggle. The story is, first of all, filled with truth. In telling and retelling the Valley Forge story, we understand ourselves as a nation. But it is not Obama's story to do with as he pleases, one he can freely make use of without anchoring it to how Washington understood "hope and virtue."
If there is to be an alternative telling of the American story against Obama's narrative, it will have to be rooted in the moral imagination, what Russell Kirk described as "the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience" which offers as touchstones the great works of art and literature on questions of morals, politics and culture. The moral imagination has had its champions, as far back as Edmund Burke to 20th Century writers such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Kirk and, in our present day, Vigen Guroian.
Narrative, which moves the senses and feelings, works in powerful ways on the moral imagination. It has its own power distinct from rhetoric -- policy papers, lectures, punditry -- which appeals primarily to the mental faculty. "In certain ways," Kirk said, "the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology." Obama is creating a story -- call it a myth if you will -- which first invites people to see themselves in the grand American narrative. Out of that connection, he can then mobilize his "movement." He can do this (with the help of those 13 million email addresses) without the media or the Congress. He, like Reagan, will go directly to the people. And, as president, he has the world's biggest stage on which to play out this political drama.
Little wonder, then, that Obama has so heavily employed references to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, a president who looms like an Old Testament patriarch over the great moral struggle of the American people over slavery. And with his many references to Martin Luther King, Obama also positions himself as the inheritor of that legacy, adapted to a 21st Century transnational multi-culture. This is something close to a universal narrative, which explains why Obama's popularity extends deep into Europe and Africa. For this reason, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the civil rights leader who offered the inaugural benediction, has described Obama as "the first global president."
But the narrative that has perhaps most enthralled supporters may be Obama's own. His "Dreams from My Father" autobiography recounts Obama's early life -- the Kenyan father who abandoned him, his white mother's second marriage and the family's relocation to Indonesia, and then the move to Hawaii where he encountered racism in the predominately Asian-American school. In composing the narrative of his own story, Obama draws his own meaning out of what looks like just another broken family -- albeit with more exotic locales. But he does something more. He places the meaning of his own narrative into the historical stream of the American struggle for racial equality long after the big battles have been fought and won. Obama locates his narrative in the context of the increasingly multi-racial, middle class -- and muddled -- situation of American race relations in the 21st Century. The subtitle of Obama's autobiography: "A Story of Race and Inheritance."
Obama's inauguration's theme, "The New Birth of Freedom," is drawn from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. His inauguration speech was delivered only days away from the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. (The Acton Institute's serendipitously titled "Birth of Freedom" documentary also looks at Lincoln and King and humanity's long struggle for freedom as it is rooted in religious truth. View the trailer here.)
Obama started early on adopting the Lincoln narrative. He announced the start of his presidential campaign in February 2007 on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. -- the site of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech. Obama told the assembled crowd:
It was here, in Springfield, where I saw all that is America converge -- farmers and teachers, businessmen and laborers, all of them with a story to tell, all of them seeking a seat at the table, all of them clamoring to be heard.
Obama has his story. It is compelling and it has inspired millions all over the world. The question now: Will those who work in the tradition of the moral imagination provide a counter-narrative on those questions where there is a fundamental clash? Do they understand, as Kirk did, the need for "the renewal of our awareness of transcendent order, and the presence of the Other"? Will they find their voice?