President Obama’s Origin Story, and the Power of the Personal Narrative

When John McCain’s presidential campaign released the “Celebrity” ad — which attempted to equate candidate Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, by dint of nothing more than the Senator’s popularity — we knew that the rational, bipartisan John McCain, the one who truly would put “country first” and in some part deserved the presidency, was dead and gone. In his place stood a shrilly partisan operation, convinced that victory could be won by stacking gimmick upon gimmick in a vain attempt to distract the electorate from the obvious failures of Republican policies. (This trend, naturally, would culminate in Sarah Palin.)

Now, the same charge is back, but as an excuse for the lackluster Republican field, and an explanation for Obama’s likely re-election. Per The Wall Street Journal, if Obama wins, it’s because of the myth — and celebrity — but not the man.

I don’t dispute that President Obama’s personal life presents a compelling, relatable, important, and quintessentially American story. But what’s most important is that Obama uses his past to inform his politics. Other candidates, like Tim Pawlenty, actually have similar rags-to-riches upbringings, but make no attempt to relate their rags-to-riches tale to their policies. Instead, Pawlenty’s past seems to contradict his present and future, and denies the very “social exceptionalism” that the author admits her party needs. Here is a party that “believes in you,” as we hear, but leverages the same as an excuse to let you go your own way, pull out the social safety net, and rely on lines discredited by Bruce Hornsby songs should you fail (“Just for fun he says… get a job!”).

Oh, but don’t you believe them. What works for President Obama is that his story matches with a compelling vision for you. Here’s a man who emerged from a tough beginning against all odds, and doesn’t believe you need to face the same odds. That’s a powerful message, because it results from the knowledge that living the American dream is very, very hard, unless we look out for each other. Not to over-indulge in music this post, but we must bear our neighbors’ burdens within reason, and our labors will be borne when all is done. Don’t carry it all!

Obama’s struggles taught him that compassion, and it comes through. Pawlenty’s life taught him… what, exactly? When a Republican can answer that question, he’ll do well. Until then, we can suffer through the Wall Street Journal’s overwrought explanations of the party’s failures, but this will be the extent of the Republican Party’s relevance. This I swear to all.

*     *     *

Oh, and you know what? The author’s treatment of McCain’s decision to ignore the President’s middle name goes completely amiss. It wasn’t cowardice, and it wasn’t political correctness. It was class, a word we may have forgotten. But what would you expect from an author who, in the very next breath, attributes Trump’s meteoric rise, and meteoric fall, to his insightfulness?



  1. ‘Here’s a man who emerged from a tough beginning against all odds, and doesn’t believe you should have to do the same.”

    This sentence is so ripe for mis-interpretation that I thought you might want to take another stab at it.

  2. Hmm, I didn’t think so, but I modified it.

  3. Fair enough. So let’s look at the odds that were presented to the President:

    – single mother
    – low income
    – black

    So I am curious, how would he eliminate those challenges for other Americans? I have my own guesses:

    – keep abortion legal
    – use the tax code to redistribute wealth
    – affirmative action

    Sound about right?

  4. Oh my. There’s so much there.

  5. You’re welcome to provide other liberal policies that would reduce the number of single-parent homes, help black people overcome racism and give low-income folks a boost.

  6. Not erasing Medicare is a pretty good start!

  7. How did Medicare alleviate any of the odds that faced President Obama or help anyone facing similar odds?

  8. I don’t think it has to, to be relevant here. It helps SOME.

  9. Ames – the entire theme of your post is about Obama’s origin story and how he wants to prevent people from suffering in the same way. I asked for policy proposals that would prevent the specific kind of hardships he faced..and you come up with maintaining Medicare?

  10. This is about to get all kinds of silly. The post is about the compassion he learned from having a harder upbringing. I can’t imagine how Medicare isn’t relevant to that.

  11. So it’s your contention that Pawlenty’s own past played no role in his current policies? And how do you arrive at that conclusion?

    You claim that Obama’s upbringing matches directly with his policy proposals but doesn’t Pawlenty’s proposals suggest the same thing? He put himself through college and made himself into a success. I would argue his conservative values support that same opportunity for others.

    I’m also curious – can the kind of compassion that Obama learned through his tough childhood also be found in someone who was raised in an affluent home and had every advantage?

    1. Mike,
      Yes it can be, if that person has parents who guide them, and is a community where such compassion is regularly practiced. That said, Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare (including the Clinton era work provisions), Pell Grants for College, and Social Security are all programs that currently exist (and get labeled Liberal) that can indeed help people both not slide to the absolute bottom economically, but give them a firm footing to stand on to go up. Yes, each individual has to take advantage of the opportunities set before them, and nothing replaces hard work and determination. No government program can tell a person to get out of bed each morning, work two jobs, and put themselves through school.

      But what government programs can do, and did for the President, is make sure that when a person gets out of bed and does want to apply themselves, there is an opportunity. Our nation has a long and sadly sordid history of seeking to actively deny economic opportunity on the basis of race and class, and the “free market” has done nothing to change that. Hence why, in most southern states, there is a university system that used to be “white” and a university system that used to be “black.” You can’t overcome that sort of thing EXCEPT through government action.

      1. “You can’t overcome that sort of thing EXCEPT through government action.”

        So every black man in the South who manages to get through college owes some kind of debt to Uncle Sam?

        1. That’s my experience. The debt has diminished SIGNIFICANTLY over time, but the ability to enter ANY college, not just the historically black colleges, came about because the federal government and federal courts tipped the extremely reluctant hand of the universities so that race was not used any longer to keep blacks from receiving the education that whites received. Uncle Sam also provided a ton of financial assistance to all sorts of people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, something the free market approach would advocate against.

          1. And I think conservatives have been pretty vocal about controlling tuition costs at universities.

            The problem is that of course it isn’t black & white. Conservatives may under-estimate the value of the government in smoothing out the bumps for the disadvantaged but I think liberals are guilty of over-selling the need for government in every aspect of our lives. It goes back to that ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.

    2. oneiroi · ·

      I mean, to understand where Ames is coming from, you have to understand a generalistic liberal viewpoint.

      To us, conservatives favor corporations/businesses, the rich, defense spending.

      As liberals, we see ourselves favoring programs for the lower & middle class (including social programs), domestic spending, governmental regulation to protect the masses…

      It’s harder, at least for me, to trust an affluent conservative to pass policies that address concerns and problems they’ve never had. For presidents, it’s even more of a problem in a position that seems so isolated from “the people”.

      And absolutely I think Pawlenty could have some story about how government regulation hurt him, but I think part of Ames’ post is that his upbringing is divorced from his policies, at least on a rhetoric level. I think Obama tends to use his upbringing more on that same rhetoric level.

      Then there of course are oddities on our side, people like Ted Kennedy who probably wanted for nothing, yet focused his life on fighting for policies that, at least liberals think, would help.

      I also find the whole discussion interesting as we have also been talking about populism and the tea party.

      1. But Oneiroi – my point is that his policies seem to exactly support stories like his own i.e. the traditional ‘bootstraps’ tale.

      2. oneiroi · ·

        I think the bootstraps ideas, ignores a lot of realities out there, that liberals feel need to be addressed, and hope that the candidates they support understand.

        1. I’m not arguing whether or not his policies are right or wrong (since they reflect core differences between conservatism and liberalism). I’m simply pointing out that contrary to Ames’ claims, pawlenty’s policy proposals are informed by and directly reflect his own ‘origin tale’.

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