When President Obama used the example of his daughters finishing their homework on time to scold Republican lawmakers for putting off tough decisions about the budget, you may have realized, with some horror, that the president had become narrative-challenged.
The story of The One, the Messianic Figure, the Soulful Black Man Come to Redeem a Fallen America, the Quintessential Stranger Who Was Thus the Quintessential Figure of American Democracy—the thrilling, universal tale of Obama’s rise through a torn family with a world-wandering mother and an absent father had become tired and irrelevant. It was all used up.
Instead, you were left with the off-putting image of the dry, arrogant law professor, with his superior intellectual airs, that had occasionally appeared during the last presidential campaign. Back then, that unlovely side of the candidate was quickly eclipsed by The One’s universal tale. Now it has emerged as the only storyline the president can muster. Which means that Obama and the Democrats could be in big trouble.
Tea Partiers’ anger runs on feelings that they have been belittled by liberal elites who are far removed from the country’s immediate everyday interests. And here was Obama on Wednesday, fulfilling every aspect of the frightening chimera that the the new American right has turned him into. By comparing the Republicans, unfavorably, to his two children, he was dismissing their concerns as childish and unserious. You recalled his allusion to the New Testament during his inaugural address: “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” Here was clearly a man who was not comfortable with opposition. How could he be, when he associated opposition with immaturity? And so can you blame the other side, once it is accused of being childish, for throwing an extended child’s tantrum?
Go ahead, roll your eyes and chortle: “But that’s the only way to treat the people on the other side who are stubborn and immovable as children and are fixated on low taxes the way children get fixated on that toy in the window!” Put yourself in their shoes, however. If you think American involvement in Libya is an atrocious absurdity, especially in light of Obama’s cogent reasons for accelerating our military withdrawal from Afghanistan, you might not relish the idea of Obama considering your qualms to be childish. You might not appreciate his comparing you, unfavorably, to his young children: “Malia and Sasha generally come to the aid of people in trouble. They don’t hide under their desks.”
At almost the same time Obama was reprimanding Republican legislators by telling them that even his kids were more mature than they, Michele Bachmann also was invoking her child at a town-hall meeting in South Carolina. Bachmann revealed—although she first told the story publicly three years ago—that her third pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage. “When we lost that child, it changed us,” she said. “And it changed us forever.”
There you have, in stark existential terms, one essential polarity in American politics today: liberal certitude rooted in intellectual self-assurance versus conservative certitude rooted in raw experience.
Or to frame it another way, imagine Obama as the right sees him, as a substitute teacher from another town who has no legitimacy in their classroom. He lectures, he scolds, he wants everyone to stay after school. He has no idea what the lives of his students are like: their parents looking for work; their early marriages and pregnancies and all the attendant difficulties and mishaps; the way they pour their frustrated ambitions into love and hope for their children. He sees them as kids who need the guidance of a grown-up. They see him as refusing to understand their grown-up problems.
So it is hardly surprising that so many of the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, or potential hopefuls, strike liberals as the equivalent of problem children. How many times have we read that Palin “didn’t do her homework” before a debate or a public appearance? Gingrich is portrayed as a juvenile delinquent. Herman Cain, we learn, is popular for speaking out of turn. With all her adopted children and her tragic pregnancy, Bachmann comes across like that teenage girl who dreamily draws hearts (and daggers) in her textbook while the teacher is talking. Even the more polished, informed, self-possessed Romney seems cursed with an Eddie Haskell air of insincerity and deceitfulness. “Hi, Ms. Obama! Don’t you look swell in that pretty new dress.”
Truants, cut-ups, and underachievers on the one side, a superior, remote, scolding president on the other. The belittled versus the Belittler. Stories bursting with color and with vicarious spaces versus an increasingly storyless president. More and more, the near political future seems to depend on whether the country prefers the good kids safely on track to the top or the “problem” children who are itching, aching, for a second chance.