Reprinted from The Hill, May 31, 2009
We have been analyzing the narrative of Barack Obama for some years now. In fact, we’ve tracked three differing narratives in the course of his campaign and the first term of his presidency. We’ve tracked the president’s highs (the “Yes we can!” Grant Park Speech, and others of soaring rhetoric), and his lows (the much more pedestrian Gulf Oil Spill effort).
We’ve been praised for our astute analysis, and condemned for announcing his premature political death. At the time, the Global Language Monitor’s analysis of the BP Oil Spill speech was actually pulled off CNN and replaced by a far milder critique. In retrospect, that speech was a harbinger of what was to come — Barack Obama bereft of Hope and Change.
Not that we didn’t have hints about of what was about to transpire. Consider the disposition of these “hope-and-change type” promises: (1) the immediate shutdown of Guantanamo, (2) the end of the K Street revolving door and (3) holding the bankers accountable for their part in the financial meltdown. How exactly do you make sense of these countervailing (or even contradictory) positions?
Obama and the null set narrative.
Now consider the president’s recent speech on U.S. defense policy: after ramping up the use of drones against “enemy combatants,” with hundreds of civilians deaths by the administration’s own estimate, he stands firmly against gratuitous drone strikes. After keeping Gitmo open for going on five years now, he will now do everything in his power to close it. How to make sense of these seemingly oppositional positions?
The null set narrative.
In the run-up to the 2010 midterms, we began to formally track the president’s narrative. We were curious to better understand how the word ‘narrative’ rose to be the No. 1 political buzzword at that time and what it meant to this presidency. Other terms frequently used to describe Obama at the time, included: detached, aloof, hands-off or professorial. Some took these words to be demeaning and/or insulting.
Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The danger comes when politicians and their operatives essentially use ‘narrative’ … the version of the truth that they want us to believe even when they don’t believe it.”
Since his reelection last November, we have remained silent on the subject — awaiting the second term narrative to emerge. With the recent series of crises, scandals and/or events, we now are, indeed, witnessing this new narrative: the null set narrative.
Consider, if you will, the current plight of one Jay Carney.
It is always interesting how one’s attributes can be used to praise or condemn depending on the narrative in which they are described.
However, this is a narrative that can fit around any news, story or scandal; more to the point, it is completely irrelevant to the words ensconced within it. Any words, anytime, anywhere. This is the narrative of choice for the administration at this point in time.
And now detached, aloof, and hands-off are the favored phrases in this administration’s null set narrative.