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Tell us a story, Mr. President

By Michael Wolraich, Special to CNN
  • Michael Wolraich says Obama once had inspiring story of hope, change, reconciliation, progress
  • But he's abandoned his story, unlike George W. Bush, who pivoted in shifting wind
  • Bush, Glenn Beck, others create narratives with heroes, villains, conflicts; Obama doesn't
  • Wolraich: Obama must seize narrative; show gains, goals in dramatic light they deserve

Editor's note: Michael Wolraich is a founder of the political blog and the author of "Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual."

(CNN) -- "You'll notice a pattern in all stories: There are three kinds of characters: heroes, villains and there but for the grace of God go I." -- Glenn Beck

Barack Obama had a story once. He spoke of hope and change, of restoring a distant government tainted by partisan infighting and corporate influence to the people it was meant to serve. But we have not heard that story since November 2008.

It is not uncommon for presidents to change their stories after assuming office, either because the practice of governing demands adaptation or because they only said what they said to get elected.

George W. Bush, for instance, ran for office as a "uniter" and a businessman who would restore efficiency to a bloated government; he quickly proved himself to be anything but.

No matter, the tragic events of 9/11 soon presented him with a far more potent narrative: The swaggering avenger who delivers swift justice against bearded terrorists, mustachioed tyrants and irritating French people.

Bush's new story featured heroes, villains and an epic battle between good and evil, and he milked it lustily for the next seven years.

Is it 1994 all over again?

By contrast, when Barack Obama assumed the presidency, he didn't change his story; he just abandoned it.

The Obama administration has talking points for sure. Obama's spokespeople will tell you about all the wonderful initiatives that the president has accomplished, from reviving an ailing economy to providing health care to all Americans.

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These are significant achievements, and the administration is right to promote them. But they do not on their own amount to a story. There are no heroes or villains, no conflicts or climaxes, no unifying thread to bind them into a compelling narrative that people want to hear.

And that is why the story that Americans have heard for the past two years on television and radio, in newspapers and on the web, has not been the story of Obama's accomplishments. It has been the story of his opposition. This story belongs to the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

It has heroes -- the hard-working, patriotic, God-fearing, gun-loving middle Americans.

It has villains -- the arrogant, power-hungry, left-wing, latte-drinking elites from the coasts.

It has transformed economic stimulus into bailouts for billionaires, health-care reform into "death panels" and mortgage relief into socialism. It has seduced millions of Americans with its simple, emotional appeal.

We need a new story.

If Obama hopes to be re-elected and restore floundering Democrats to Congress, he must put aside his talking points and find instead a compelling narrative to capture Americans' imagination and help them understand what he seeks to accomplish.

Otherwise, we will suffer through two more years of bitter conflict between "liberal elites" and so-called "real Americans," followed by another devastating Republican triumph in 2012.

Mr. President, if I may, allow me to propose the outline for a new story ...

[Dissolve to narrative sequence, begin bassotone voiceover.]

America has arrived at a moment of truth. Still teetering on the edge of an economic precipice, we can choose to repair our divisions, rebuild our infrastructure, balance our budget, revive our economy, bolster our safety nets and work together to bridge the chasm fissuring below us.

Or we can seize up in a panic, blaming one another for the catastrophe as doomsday prophets seduce us into hysterical fits of fear and rage. Instead of working to mend the government, we can split into two bitter camps, one that demands to retain its historic privileges while the other strives to eliminate government altogether.

Horns locked in stalemate, we will tumble together into the abyss.

The End.

[Dissolve, end voiceover]

The story I would propose has heroes -- courageous patriots from both parties who put aside their differences for the good country.

It has villains -- charlatans and demagogues who exploit Americans' base instincts for profit and power.

It presents an epic conflict stretching deep into history, with reformers such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt on one side and fearmongers such as 1950s communist seeker Sen. Joe McCarthy on the other.

In this story, politically difficult choices such as raising taxes and cutting benefits do not represent abusive expansions of government or disregard for the poor and elderly, but necessary sacrifices for the survival of our way of life. Like the Tea Party story, it has simple, emotional appeal. Unlike the Tea Party story, it is not a raving delusion.

Mr. President, if you tell people a good story, your job will become much easier. The initiatives you work hard to pass will become part of a larger narrative that helps people make sense of what is happening in the country. They will not be so easily forgotten, or worse, twisted into ugly caricatures within someone else's story.

A good story can motivate people to work harder for a cause and inspire them to become better human beings. Once upon a time, you had a story to tell. It brought millions of Americans to your side. Find your story, and stick to it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wolraich.