The President's Movie

Most people seem to agree that the single greatest mystery of the Obama presidency is how a candidate who stoked hope, raised expectations, and stirred tens of millions of Americans to embrace change became a president who banked the fires of hope, lowered expectations, and dampened the belief of tens of millions of Americans that anything in the country could be changed. Theories, of course, abound: that Barack Obama, like John F. Kennedy before him, ran as an idealist but had always intended to govern as a pragmatist; that the toxic political environment prevented him from accomplishing the magnitude of change his supporters wanted; that the problems he inherited from Bush were simply too overwhelming; that in fighting for health-care reform he chose the wrong battle; that the public itself always demands change during an election only to be terrified of it afterward; and, last but not least, that Democrats are just plain doomed.

But there is another possibility -- one that is less political than philosophical. Obama may have misunderstood how the presidency has evolved since the days of Ronald Reagan so that Obama's very conception of the office is outmoded. Obama still thinks that the way to achieve his goals is to come up with the right policy and to build political support for it with logical argument. He doesn't understand the extent to which one of the primary functions of the presidency is emotive: to provide a sense of psychological comfort to the nation that, once accomplished, might well lead to legislative achievements -- may, in fact, be the best route to those achievements -- but can also be an end in itself. People want a president who makes them feel good.

Every president, whether he says so explicitly or not, approaches the presidency with a metaphor in mind. Theodore Roosevelt thought of his as a "bully pulpit" from which to educate the public. Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think of his as a national living room from which he could bolster American spirits in dark times. John F. Kennedy seemed to think of his as a salon. George W. Bush acted as if his were a testosterone-drenched fraternity.

Each of these metaphors has its benefits -- and its problems -- but it was left to Reagan to find a metaphor that reshaped the entire institution of the presidency to the point where his successors could ignore his conception at their peril. For him, the presidency was no bully pulpit, living room, salon, or fraternity. Nor was it the college lectern that Obama seems to think it is from which he can calmly and rationally explain his policies. It was a darkened theater in which Reagan could project a movie about the country's desires and dreams -- an American fantasy.

Reagan came to this idea naturally from his training as an actor. An actor's object is to move an audience, excite it, and ultimately give it pleasure. When Reagan entered politics, he intuited that theatrical performance and political office were essentially the same. The goal was, once again, effect -- to make the audience feel. He understood that in the age of mass culture, the relationship between the president and his public was paramount and that his primary role was to be the actor-in-chief who starred in the national movie and provided vicarious thrills.

This was a radically different conception of the presidency, but because it was couched in all sorts of bold policy pronouncements, not everyone caught on that the pronouncements were smokescreens covering the movie screen. Before Reagan, only FDR seemed to have presentiments that the presidential function was as much psychological as political and that an effective president, particularly in bad times, had to be an entertainer as much as, if not more than, a politician. Die-hard liberals used to blanch when Reagan cited FDR as his inspiration, but this is undoubtedly what he meant. Roosevelt wasn't a political forebear; he was an aesthetic forebear who vehemently promoted optimism.

Still, FDR was a traditionalist. For him, aesthetics were in the service of politics -- a way to gain support for his agenda. Reagan's political genius, such as it was, was to recognize that politics is basically aesthetics, that the public is an audience, and that the president has to satisfy that audience. He realized that people care less about what you do in substantive political terms if you manage to buoy them psychologically. They want to feel good -- the way they feel when the lights come up at the movie theater. That's why Reagan wasn't a detail man. He knew that the details were irrelevant. It was the show that counted.

Since Reagan's presidency, this has only become more valid, especially since Republican intransigence has made real change extremely difficult. In a sense, there is nothing but feel good, to which Reagan, had he been a theorist rather than a politician, might have said that since the purpose of policy is to create a sense of happiness and well-being, by massaging the national psyche, he was only cutting out the middle man, namely substantive achievement. Or put another way, "Morning in America" wasn't just an election slogan. It was the very raison d'etre of the presidency.

Whether one believes that psychology trumps policy and that a president's most potent weapon is aesthetics, psychology and aesthetics are certainly useful presidential tools, though this is a lesson Democrats have had a much harder time learning than Republicans have. Modern Republicanism is predicated on government inaction. Republicans are comfortable with a narrative-driven politics that is specifically designed to appeal to voters' predilections and prejudices and that makes the public feel a positive attitude is enough to conquer anything. Once arrived upon, these canards have never changed: Government is the problem, not the solution; private enterprise will solve everything; tax cuts are a magical force that will juice a stagnant economy and feed a roaring one; and liberals are not "real" Americans because they don't believe in any of this.

It is an appealing litany precisely because it is so simple and because it demands nothing either of government or of the American people save one thing: confidence. The underlying theme of the anti-government crusade is that everything will be fine if we just believe in ourselves and let the system churn along on its own merry way. It is not prescriptive. It is holistic -- a form of political self-help that is not very different from the psychobabble that a Tony Robbins or a Rhonda Byrne peddles. Though the affinity may be obscured by the GOP's alliance with the religious right, in effect Reagan turned his party into the political adjunct of the self-help movement.

It is no wonder that Democrats are uncomfortable with this sort of extra-political, quasi-mystical, confidence-building approach to politics. Most Democrats, operating out of the liberal tradition, are disposed to rationality rather than showmanship, to legislative programs rather than 12-step programs. But while their disdain is understandable, it has often worked to their detriment. It is far easier, as President Obama learned, for opponents to attack specific policy prescriptions than to attack more generalized platitudes, which accounts in part for Reagan's famous Teflon coating. He always floated above the wonky stuff on rhetorical wings while it seemed that every time Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or Obama proposed a legislative initiative, it got bogged down in minutiae.

President Obama has been especially disinclined to enter the darkened theater, play actor-in-chief, and replace policy with national therapy. One suspects that he thinks it is demeaning and demagogic -- beneath him and the office. The presidency should be substantive. It should be about serious stuff. It should tackle problems, not pretend that they don't exist or that they will disappear if we just put ourselves in the proper frame of mind. All of which places him at a tremendous disadvantage in the contemporary politics of theatricality. One reason for Reagan's success as a communicator is that he actually believed in his own cheery message. He truly believed the cliches, the simplifications, the optimism. For Obama, as for many liberals, it is all hooey.

And that reluctance to embrace the presidency as a feel-good movie-dream may be the real answer to why the candidate who entered the nation's emotional life became a president who retreated from it. It may also be the answer to how Obama can re-energize his flagging presidency -- he has to accept the fact that the president must stroke the American people and raise their spirits. He has to change the national consciousness before he can hope to change national policy. It is a realization that Obama seems to have come to, however grudgingly, when he told 60 Minutes after the election debacle that "leadership isn't just legislation." It is "giving [people] confidence ... and setting a tone." Exactly.

This isn't easy, but neither is it impossible. We may forget that Reagan wasn't elected because his message resonated with the American people. He was elected because Carter's message didn't. Reagan had to insinuate his way into the national consciousness the way movies do. He had to get people to ignore the bad news. He had to buck up sagging morale. Put another way, Reagan had to practice "inception," after the title of last summer's movie blockbuster: find a way to get the American people to think they were thinking what he was thinking.

Democrats have spent a lot of time agonizing over how to construct a narrative that could challenge the Republican anti-government narrative of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, and self-congratulation. In doing so, they have largely neglected the delivery. The Republican narrative isn't exactly rocket science, and a Democratic narrative doesn't have to be complicated, either. It does, however, have to get into the national mind, which is where inception comes in. To re-engage the public, Obama has to pull a Leonardo DiCaprio and plant his idea there. He has to devise a simple message of optimism and hope. He has to repeat it endlessly, not just for a few weeks or a few months but for years in every possible forum until it becomes a mantra. He has to make it ubiquitous, with every Democrat mouthing the same mantra the way the Republicans do. (That part isn't easy.) He has to express it with passion. And he has to make sure that he is pushing the right buttons -- the hopefulness, the willful happiness, the exceptionalism, the vaingloriousness. In sum, he has to make sure that the movie he projects is one that leaves the audience feeling really good about themselves, their country, and their president. Only then can he do what he clearly wants to do, which is actively guide policy, whether the public cares or not.

Republicans now perform this sort of therapy by rote. They have been digging around the national mind for decades, and they have managed to associate themselves with almost every positive idea, image, and icon so that while they may be bereft of innovations, they are encased in good connotations. More, they know, as Obama doesn't, that great accomplishments do not necessarily make great presidents. Great feelings make great presidents. The sooner President Obama figures this out, the sooner he can restore his luster, regardless of what he achieves in the more traditional arenas of the presidency. It is all about inception.