Politics and “Big-Picture Narration”

Several minutes into political consultant David Axelrod’s conversation with reporter Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, Axelrod begins to detail the nitty-gritty of presidential campaign debate preparations. Fresh off the publication of his memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Axelrod—who was, at various points, Obama’s senior advisor and communications director, respectively—was in a reflective, anecdotal mood. Using Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign as an example, he explains to Davies that the first campaign debate between existing president and challenger is typically a “killing field” for the president. So it was, he reflected, with Obama’s initial performance against Mitt Romney. These debates, Axelrod explained, are “not freeform discussions; they’re parallel performances.” Every word must be solid, each gesture—verbal and metaphorical—must be rehearsed. A good performance, Axelrod alluded, should have the president’s staff mouthing each word as issued by the president in real-time.

President Obama, Jon Favreau, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs working on Obama’s 2008 Democratic presidential acceptance speech. Image courtesy of Ad Week.

Listening to the interview—and to Axelrod’s comments on the necessity of narrative precision—I couldn’t help but think of Jon Favreau, Obama’s former chief speechwriter. (Favreau will visit Duke in two weeks’ time, as a Kenan practitioner in residence). Favreau has often been referred to as Obama’s “mind-reader,” uniquely able to channel not only the president’s thematic concerns and political objectives but also his rhetorical thrust into the text of speeches.

The interview with Axelrod serves, I think, as good prelude to Favreau’s upcoming visit, which is titled “Words Matter: Storytelling with President Obama in an Age of Sound Bites.” Both invoke the importance of storytelling and narrative—themselves both nuanced art forms and processes that can often be lost beneath the seductively broad idea of “politics.” Listening to the words of both Favreau and Axelrod—who elsewhere in the NPR interview refers to the president’s role as a “big-picture narrator” rather than an “announcer for the government”—I’m able to re-attune to the role of craft in rhetoric and public speech, and the impulses behind that craft to connect and widen, rather than alienate. As Favreau recounted from an early interaction (read: interview) with then-senator Obama, when he was trying to articulate his speechwriting theory in order to to get the gig: “A speech can broaden the circle of people who care about this stuff. How do you say to the average person that’s been hurting: ‘I hear you. I’m there.’?” Favreau’s theory gestures towards empathy: it looks to lift up the least visible in order to tell a wider story, to increase the realm of visibility itself. This rhetoric has, indeed, characterized Obama’s presidency; it has also narrated, since his first election, a story of America—one in which the issues of the everyday are paramount, and family, tradition, race, and class are aligned as much with the president’s personal identity as with the national pulse. I’m curious about how Favreau tapped into and helped build that pulse. And I’m curious about how that pulse will sustain or transform as we enter into the next presidential election cycle.