In the spring of 1983, I was Barack Obama's professor at Columbia University. Barack, or Barry as he was known then, was a senior in my class on "The Novel and Ideology." I understand from reliable sources that he liked the class and was intrigued by what I was teaching. What I taught was that while a novelist, which Obama aspired to be at that point, might feel free to improvise and create, the culture and its ideology would ultimately determine the novelist's innovations. A novelist like Herman Melville might create a story about a whale, but the larger social, cultural surround would determine the various meanings of what that whale might mean. In other words, novelists intend, but what they intend depends on how well their story fits into the current ideology.
Now let's fast-forward 27 years. I'm still a professor, but Barack Obama is President of the United States. As we approach his first State of the Union message, I wonder if it would be appropriate for me to remind my former student of the value of considering ideology at large. If we think of Obama as someone who turned his writing into impressive oratory, we have to notice that the problem is that his golden words fall on unreceptive ears. I don't think there is any question that Obama's goals are laudable and high-minded--to bring the country together, to heal old wounds, to make health care universal and affordable, to reign in the big banks' excesses, create renewable sources of energy, and end global warming. But his intentions are now being absorbed and neutralized by the ideology of the moment--and that narrative has been very successfully shaped by Republicans.
Obama's eloquence and his idealism went awry because he failed to judge the depth of the ideological surround. After his inauguration, Obama wanted to create a new era of bi-partisanship. That was his narrative, but the readership of that story came to see it through the growing world-view of the right. So bi-partisanship would be seen as Pollyannaish and ultimately ineffectual. Obama presented a message of universal and affordable health care, and the right created an ideological reception that depicted it as socialism. Cap-and-trade solutions to global warming were received as Chicken Little panicking about a made-up crisis. Each time Obama wrote his narrative, good words fell on bad ideology, and no germination could happen.
In order to regain lost ground, now Obama has to become more than an author, he has to become a counter-ideologist. What we have before us is a battle that takes place in the arena of ideas. To gird for that battle, Obama needs to become a shaper of the concepts and ideas that permeate the social consciousness of America. He has to master the narrative and change the disseminated stories. If the Republicans have written a story about Obama being a weak and dithering leader, he has to rewrite that narrative to show him as a thoughtful and effective executive. Where he is seen as a man who would dismantle the greatness of America, he has to become another hero in our nation's history. Where he is seen as a man aloof from the people, he has to tell the story he told so effectively in his books of being a spokesperson for and protector of the ordinary citizen. This kind of writing shouldn't be hard for Obama--he's a very good writer and an excellent speaker. But as I give him his mid-term grades, I would specify that he does have to apply himself to the task.
So what grade should I give Obama in his first year? Oprah asked him that very same question, and he replied that he would give himself a B+. I'd lower that assessment to a B-. But we all know that unlike George Bush, the perennial C student, Obama is an A+ go-getter. We all want our President to make the grade, and so his as his former professor I'd say--Try harder and learn the lesson of my course--if you don't control ideology, it will control you.