Keep On Shuffling

Bai's argument about Obama doesn't stand up to scrutiny

I’m as sympathetic as any writer to the columnist’s need to come up with an argument on demand. But in “The Shuffle President,” his piece in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai misreads his subject, uses poll data without providing context, and delivers a to-be-sure sentence that essentially undermines the entire piece.

Bai’s premise, as he defines it in his first paragraph, is that “every new presidency is a story; the more muddled and erratic the storyline, the harder it is for the public to follow along and the less likely the chances of reaching a satisfying end.” But President Barack Obama is abandoning the familiar script of homing in on one or two goals in favor of a sprawling agenda that includes health-care reform, cap-and-trade legislation, financial regulation, even a new relationship with Russia. “Obama’s style reflects, whether he means it to or not, a cultural shift on the importance of narrative,” Bai writes. Later, he adds, “Obama is the nation’s first shuffle president. He’s telling lots of stories at once, and in no particular order.”

Bai is not the first one to take note of Obama’s crowded plate, and not to mean it as a compliment; he cites similar critiques by Colin Powell and Peggy Noonan. But his column encapsulates the weakness of this line of argument.

What’s most striking about the piece is Bai’s emphasis on narrative; it seems to be the only prism through which he can view the presidency. He’s not wrong to point out that recent (and, though he doesn’t mention them, not-so-recent) presidents have sought to control the storyline about their administrations. But the reductive focus on narrative demands an understanding of the presidency as fundamentally either an aesthetic or a dramatic pursuit. That may be a reasonable way to understand political reporting, which converts a welter of data and information into a coherent story (sometimes to ill effect; has public knowledge been advanced by the way the Kennedy presidency, for example, has been portrayed by the press?). But politics itself, with its endless give-and-take, its sensitivity to events, its contest between multiple vantage points, is rarely so neat as the journalists who are charged with chronicling it make it seem. Politics is inherently “muddled and erratic”; the test of a president is not how well he obscures that fact, but how well he grapples with it.

Bai’s emphasis on narrative also leads him to characterize Obama, not entirely accurately, as “a born storyteller.” Obama is a skilled orator who knows how to employ an anecdote for effect, as he did to conclude his celebrated speech on race during the presidential campaign. But much of his most effective public rhetoric, with its emphasis on thorough, patient construction of an argument, brings to mind not a storyteller but the law professor he once was.

The conflation of the goals of politics and political reporting leads one to suspect that Obama’s course of action is most “confounding,” to use Bai’s word, to political journalists themselves, who have to junk a familiar script in which a president’s success or failure is determined by his ability to push through his top priority with single-minded determination. Bai makes a bid for the broader significance of his argument by citing poll data which show that Obama is more popular than his policy prescriptions; 60 percent viewed the president favorably in a June poll, but only 46 percent expressed confidence in his economic policies, and 33 percent supported his health care plan, Bai writes. (The poll is written up, with a link to the full results, here.)

There are two points to be made about Bai’s use of this poll to support his argument. First, as he acknowledges, when poll respondents were given a broad description of Obama’s health-care agenda, support rose to 55 percent. Bai reasonably interprets this to mean that “even the outlines of what is arguably Obama’s most important proposal haven’t been absorbed by the public.” But the fault there may belong as much to the media—and, let’s face it, to the daunting complexity of health care reform—as to the president himself.

Second, when confronted with data like this, a reader’s first question should always be: Compared to what? Or, in this case, is this result different from what we’ve seen in the past? In January 2003, according to Gallup, President George W. Bush had job-approval ratings of 60 percent. But at the same point, only 41 percent of Americans thought Bush’s economic policies were “fair to all groups,” a reasonable facsimile of approval. And while the gaps were not consistent, the percentage of Americans who approved of President Bill Clinton’s job performance was regularly larger than those who wanted him to exercise more influence than congressional Republicans over the nation’s direction.

It’s always dangerous to compare polls from different sources, and those data on Clinton and Bush don’t disprove Bai’s point. But they call into question his assumption that there’s something new and unusual—something that needs explaining—about presidents who are more popular than their policy prescriptions. And if that claim isn’t true, then the poll doesn’t support Bai’s case that by spreading himself thin, Obama is squandering his popularity.

The surest sign of a flawed argument, though, is the brief “to-be-sure” passage that is more persuasive than the rest of the piece. “Some of this itinerancy,” Bai acknowledges, “must be attributed to the sheer scope of the wreckage Obama inherited. When you’ve got failing banks and corporate giants, two ongoing wars, melting icecaps and mountainous health care costs, it’s hard to see what gets pushed to the margins.”

Exactly. Obama’s trying to do a lot because he believes, as do most observers, that there’s a lot that needs to be done. With that point conceded, the rest of the column, with its search for meaning in “cultural shifts” and its analogy between policy agendas and iPod playlists, collapses.

Whatever the merits of Obama’s proposals on various issues, he seems to recognize that he faces a complex, challenging world, one in which action is required on multiple fronts. Even Bai seems to acknowledge this in his conclusion. Should Obama succeed in getting health care reform passed, he writes, challenges will keep coming: “What about carbon emissions? How about reining in Wall Street?” These are pressing questions. Doesn’t it make sense to try to answer them?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.