A close vote by a split electorate has handed President Obama a second term. He steps up, revived and renewed, to preside over a divided nation that often seems to agree on only one thing: today’s children will live less well than their parents. This pervasive loss of confidence, though hard to precisely measure, is of enormous consequence. It’s what sinks civilizations.
Mr. Obama understands this, but hasn’t fashioned a coherent response — and it nearly resulted in his defeat. The problem was starkly visible to 70 million viewers in that disastrous first debate when Mitt Romney showed many voters that he was confident about the future of the country. Mr. Obama seemed at a loss, conflicted and hesitant, as though he’d been found out.
To understand what was happening behind that lectern and the challenge Mr. Obama faces in his new term, it’s useful to consider what the president told me in a February 2011 interview in the Oval Office. Mr. Obama spoke of a president’s power to instill confidence in the people as something of a coin of the realm.
Citing Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, he talked about how both men, regardless of their policies, were masterly at helping Americans “believe in themselves.” Ronald Reagan, he said with a hint of envy, “was very comfortable in playing the role of president,” with his actor’s background.
The president summed up what he’d learned after an optimism-bruising two years in office: “I think where the evolution has taken place,” he said, “is understanding that leadership in this office is not a matter of you being confident. Leadership in this office is a matter of helping the American people feel confident.”
Exuding confidence while not feeling it? That straddle is particularly difficult for Mr. Obama, who’s long wrestled with a dual role as appraising narrator, with those writerly skills, and main actor in the great play of events. Reconciling that split is what held him back in the campaign and left him tongue-tied when he tried to paint an alluring vision of the future. Obama the Narrator wouldn’t let Obama the Actor sell a confidence he didn’t feel, even if it’s what people were yearning for.
Now, the re-elected president must find some way to tell us how he, and the country, can rightfully feel optimistic.
To manage it, Mr. Obama will have to evolve. How? Speak from the heart and then act. It’s dangerous for anyone, even someone who published his autobiography at 33, fashioning a personal narrative that helped propel him to the presidency, to be so fixated on the storyteller’s third-person view, which looks down from the ceiling. It slows one’s step and adds a level of calculation — of how things will play — that undermines improvisations, the lightning reactions, the twists and surprises of a more dynamic leadership. It’s the difference between writing about history and shaping it.
Focusing on legacy, which is the endgame of the story, Mr. Obama has often missed what’s happening before his eyes. The great mishap of the first term was failing to direct, as a new president with a sky-high approval rating, a sea of enthusiasts. After all, before the Tea Party arose, there was an army many times its size — Obama’s Army — that he abandoned, leaving a tattered remnant that, in 2011, supported Occupy Wall Street. By then, the Tea Party had been embraced by Republicans and become an electoral force; still, Mr. Obama kept Occupy Wall Street at arm’s length.
He now has won a new first 100 days. In hopes of harvesting a few lessons, it’s worthwhile to note what he did the first time, with all that political capital. Thinking of his legacy — the passage of health care reform — he missed opportunities presented by the twin crises of a collapsing economy and the banking meltdown to restructure the American financial system. He did not push for the creation of a sound and sustainable foundation for investing, in place of speculative trading. Then, by failing to use Obama’s Army to drive the health care debate, he ceded ground to the Tea Party and had to limp across the finish line, a year later, with only a starting point for comprehensive health care reform — really, a widened coverage mandate by government.
Maybe Mr. Obama will feel the valuable bite of those early, missed opportunities in the weeks to come, as he has to negotiate terms to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” and the demands of Tea Party representatives. We have, indisputably, entered an age of wild participatory energies, bubbling up and driving a kind of relentless direct democracy. These voices will write the narrative for the coming days. And they’re looking for a lead actor.
In our interview on that wintry day in 2011, Mr. Obama said that the key thing a president should do “is tell a story to the American people” — something he said again to Charlie Rose this past summer. As someone who’s been writing narratives for a few decades, I can’t help but think of the standard told to generations of reporters: show, don’t tell.
Don’t tell the story. Be the story, of a president who both rode and guided history’s wave and fairly earned that coin of the realm: confidence.
Ron Suskind is the author, most recently, of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, and the senior fellow at the Harvard University Center for Ethics.