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12.14.10

Great Writers Rescue Obama

The media claim the president has "lost control of his narrative." So we asked Margaret Atwood, Sam Lipsyte and other fiction masters to offer tips for the president to fix his storyline.

Obama has a "narrative" problem. Or at least that's the media's storyline.

"Presidential politics is about storytelling," Politico's John F. Harris said last year. "No one understands this better than Barack Obama and his team, who won the 2008 election in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition."

But, as the saying goes, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and before long, everyone wants to edit.

Take the moment this summer during the Gulf oil spill when Obama seemed upended by calamity. "He'd better seize control of the story line of his White House years," opined Maureen Dowd. "Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative."

Click on cable television or flip to the opinion pages, and you'll discover that whenever things aren't going the president's way, it's because he has lost control of the narrative. In other words, the Obama camp is desperately in need of a re-write.

But rather than listen to the political journalists, who rate the president like National Book Award judges, we decided to ask some veteran novelists for a few hints of how to improve his plot in 2011.

Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask, said it's time for Obama to look at his earliest chapters.

"When I am writing and floundering, with no sense of where to go, I look back to the beginning of what I am working on, and ask: Where did I start? What set this all into motion? Obama could do the same with his novel, of which we are all characters," he wrote in an email.

"The answer would be, 'Oh, yeah, I promised change, I promised to fight some very righteous fights, I gave my supporters [the reason] to believe that I would be tough enough, or at least magical enough, to rout the armies of the evil Republican wizards, even though I would try to be nice first.' Then I think he would 'find' his 'narrative,' and perhaps find the will to finally go berserk on these thugs, these goons of the oligarchy, and save the kingdom of the middle class. And people far and wide would say, 'Have you read Obama's latest? It's a great read!' He might even get on Oprah. In short, when you lose something, it's usually where you've been, not where you think you're going."

"I'd give him something to push against. Give him an enemy who is not John Boehner. Maybe he needs an alien invasion. We can all be against invasions."

Canadian poet and author Margaret Atwood at first demurred, claiming her nationality disqualified her from meddling in her neighbor's affairs. But when pressed, she offered that a more interplanetary story line might serve the president well.

"Ask the Sci-fi writers to do some plots whereby the President has been taken over by the Pod People," she told The Daily Beast by email.

Spy novelist Alex Berenson, who published The Midnight House this year, said the way forward might be the creation of an enemy.

"The number one way you change the narrative is give him a villain," Berenson said, pointing out the way in which the country came together behind George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

"I'd give him something to push against. Give him an enemy who is not John Boehner. Maybe he needs an alien invasion. We can all be against invasions."

For Berenson, the story line from the White House remains fuzzy.

"If you came in with that book, your editor would tell you, you needed to focus," he said. "You need to know who your hero was."

Bill Scheft, a longtime writer for David Letterman and author of the recent novel Everything Hurts, said that Obama, the hero, needs to behave more like a villain.

"One natural advantage he has is that he is a smoker, and the world hates smokers. He's more dangerous as a smoker than a guy who is trying to behave," Scheft said, adding, "When I write about characters in my fiction, it is their weaknesses and their vices that are the most interesting, not their redemption."

Thickening the plot, Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters last week that the president hasn't puffed in nine months. Moreover, Obama's new nemesis John Boehner, the future Republican speaker, is known to smoke two packs a day, ruining any advantage Obama might have as a tobacco-fueled baddie. What will happen when the two smokers come face-to-face?

"There's your ending. That's high noon," Scheft said.

Of course, writers object to the media's glib use of the term, "narrative." For them, it's shorthand that misses the mark.

"Truth is, I actually think the 'narrative' notion is a preoccupation of journalists and political professionals, and not the real engine of political shifts," said thriller writer Joseph Finder, most recently the author of Vanished.

Obama's history as an acclaimed writer makes it tempting for political wags to argue that he is the author of his presidency—and now handing in sloppy drafts. But maybe we should go back to the text.

Last month, Harvard historian James Kloppenberg published Reading Obama, which argues that Obama's two books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope are "the most substantial books written by anyone elected president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson." In them, Kloppenberg finds "not only a window into Obama's nuanced understanding of American history and culture but also a blueprint for American politics."

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.