In which I analyze events, individuals, organizations and communities, through the lens of improvisation. Begins a series...
In a cosmetic sense, I agree with some of some of what Drew Westen wrote in his widely-circulated New York Times piecethis week about President (vs. Candidate) Obama's 'passionless' storytelling since getting elected. Westen's essay, however, has one glaring omission that pretty much neuters his entire argument, and for me negates most of what he has to say about the president's performance. The omission is the theme of Obama and race. You cannot separate the man's presidency from this issue any anymore than you can remove the music from Dizzie Gillespie. Westen's failure to connect with or invoke this theme in any way calls his entire thesis ('Be a more inspiring storyteller, Mr. President!') into question.
The White Man's presidential streak was broken. This is the single most meaningful thing about Obama's election. In improvisation, we say that an anomaly defines a game. There has been no bigger anomaly, and no bigger political game for any American born after WW II, than a person of color getting elected president. What Obama said to get elected and what he has said since pales (me, puntentionally) in comparison to the meaning bound up in the the narrative of race in America, and what Obama's presidency means to this narrative.
This narrative is so powerful that Obama must be very cautious with it, as one would with any substance that holds such energy, hence such potential for both creation and destruction. He must handle it with extreme delicacy and careful deliberation. He knows, and maybe ONLY he knows, what a tightrope he has to walk to keep its quantum energy from getting out of control. If, for example, the narrative of race in America is allowed to connect and commingle with the narrative of criminality on Wall Street, and those two narratives start making babies together, big trouble soon come.
London and the U.K. are piddly little Matchbox Racers compared to the NASCAR of race in America.
Obama is choosing, wisely I think, to hold this narrative close, as one would hold a baby. Quietly. Tenderly. In almost a loving way. The elixir of race in America is so potent that Obama and his team, in the interest of quieting it, and keeping it in check, must go through all kinds of 'game mechanics' -- cloaking, transforming, hoarding, hiding, etc. to keep the elixir from 'falling into enemy hands.'
When seen through the lens of race in America, what appears to Westen as Obama's weakness is actually his stillness. In what appears to Westen as non-action, Obama IS calling out the enemies of an American awakening. They are the people (i.e. energies) he's keeping close to him, and holding most tenderly -- Summers, Geithner, Immelt of G.E. and the Business Roundtable, the Bankers who keep getting perp walked symbolically up the Hill, Boehner and McConnell, McChrystal, and now the Republicans on the 'Super Committee.'
It's excruciating for those of us in the audience, because the President has been walking this tightrope since before his Inauguration, and many of us have had knots in our stomach and have been holding our breaths the entire time. We want to exhale. Need to exhale. Maybe that's what Westen is feeling, and what prompted his essay. It's his way of exhaling. I can respect that motivation.
In the essay itself, however, he turns the narrative tension of Obama's presidency into something personal and subjective. It is the tension between what Westen perceives Obama to be doing vs. his script for what Obama should be doing. Leaving race out of his critique of how Obama's is playing the game is like leaving computers out of Bill Gates' story, or leaving love out of Paris. You can do it as an intellectual exercise, but you'd be failing, as Westen has, to understand.
Mike Bonifer is the CEO of GameChangers