Creative writers and artists who spend their lives crafting narratives have long understood that we do not so much create a story as discover it. As Michelangelo said, "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition."
The narrative of politics is not very different, as President Obama has demonstrated over the last month. For the past two years, as he struggled to restore jobs to the economy, pass health care and fulfill other lofty campaign promises, he was roundly criticized for failing to communicate effectively with the American people. While the White House insisted they had a good story to tell, they conceded that they had done a poor job of telling it.
However, both the White House and its critics were wrong. The failure was not in communicating the story the administration wanted to tell, but in revealing the story that was unfolding on the American political stage. As any writer will tell you, the most important character in any story is the audience or reader. In the narrative of American politics, that is the public.
Beginning with the deadlocked Bush-Gore election of 2000, the American people have been yearning for a new narrative, a transformative story that will release us from the prison of partisanship and deadlock, and inspire us to remake the American dream. During the 2008 campaign, Obama's personal story was the touchstone for this new narrative -- a nation that could elect an African-American president after a legacy of slavery and oppression would surely be an inspiration for the future. Even more profoundly, the vision of an America uniting for change, overcoming the mistakes and bitterness of the past, and reconciling for a renewed destiny created a powerful story.
But the narrative grew cloudy after the campaign ended and the grind of governing began. The recession threw the economy -- and the administration -- into a ditch. Health care reform became a messy slog and the war in Afghanistan looked like a quagmire. Where was the transformative change that Obama promised? Was the story he told during the campaign mere fantasy? Or even worse, was it nothing but a political tall tale?
Ironically, the "shellacking" of the Democrats in the midterm elections has provided the answer to those questions. The midterm message from the public was crystal clear -- "We want progress, not partisanship." It was a good, strong dose of common sense from the electorate, rejecting ideological extremes in favor of unified, bipartisan action to solve our nation's pressing problems. Responsible leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize that the American people will simply not tolerate the deadlock and partisanship of the past decade. We need to confront our problems and begin to solve them, together.
During the campaign, Barack Obama was criticized for repeating the quote from the poet June Jordan, who, in referring to South African women, wrote, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." For his critics, the line seemed like empty rhetorical nonsense. However, the midterm message from the voters makes the quote seem quite prescient. Once again, the voters have spoken loud and clear, not only to President Obama, but to the leaders of both parties. We, the American people, have delivered the message that we have been waiting for.
Storytellers know that our greatest gift is not in creating a story, but in revealing it by listening and observing. Only then will our stories truly reflect the human experience and thus resonant with audiences and readers. Over the past month, President Obama and our leaders in Congress, with the tax cut compromise, the passage of the new Start Treaty and the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" are showing us that they have started listening, and a new narrative has begun to emerge. Like Michelangelo discovering the statute in the block of marble, I hope that our political leaders will continue to listen and discover the story that is emerging from the many voices of America. It is a story worth telling.