The Problem with Presidential Narratives and the Need for Humility

As the situation in Afghanistan worsens, the President has continued to maintain that our withdrawal has mostly gone as planned. He has claimed that the significant problems aren’t ours; they are traceable to an Afghan government that wasn’t willing to stand up to the Taliban. Even if this account is correct, it still fails to solve Biden’s difficulties. As we watch the Kabul airport first fill with people, then fill with people on the outside, then fall victim to what was a predictable terrorist attack, it’s hard to believe that this was the plan. Why couldn’t the evacuation of American citizens and the Afghans who helped us begin earlier when we still had more control of the situation on the ground? The President has said that an earlier evacuation would have caused problems on the ground that would have hurt the Afghan army’s ability to maintain control. Although there are some military strategists who disagree with this, my point here isn’t to assess its truth. Instead, the problem is that this narrative seems to many listening tone deaf to the situation on the ground. Whereas legislators can “spin” narratives that predict the effect of any bill they propose or describe the bad/good effects of bills in the past, presidents don’t have this luxury. Legislative “spin” is almost always essentially abstract. There can be no video footage showing us whether the current spending bill is a good idea. In their world of deliberation about relatively abstract concepts like national economic success, the narrative is the story. By contrast, Biden’s narrative must compete with real pictures and videos showing the effect of his policies. Presidents deal with the immediate and are held responsible for it in a way that legislators aren’t. Whether the assignment of responsibility is correct seems much less important than the visceral reality played for us on television. As we watch soldiers die, Afghans jump off planes, and the Taliban burn American flags as they claim victory, it’s hard to objectively determine whether the President is in fact responsible for all of this. Instead, as the saying goes, “the buck stops here.”

For that reason, it strikes me as useless and even counter-productive for presidents to insist on their narrative amidst the chaos over which they seem to have lost control. When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans and sent the city into chaos, the American people turned to Bush for an answer to the disaster. Shouldn’t the National Guard have arrived with their planes and boats to save the people stranded on top of their houses and on abandoned highways? When they didn’t arrive, they blamed the President. The true narrative, of course, was more complicated. Louisiana’s Governor hadn’t asked for Bush’s help in the way she should have in order to receive it. And supporters of Bush continue to insist on this narrative. But the narrative, even if true, doesn’t matter. As people were dying on the ground, a picture showed Bush looking out the window of Air Force One at the catastrophe, above the chaos and detached from it. And that’s all anyone remembered about Bush and Katrina. The President seemed not only powerless but detached and indifferent.

So too, President Biden’s angry insistence that all has gone according to plan and his continuous return to the question as to whether we should have withdrawn seems detached from the reality on the ground. He seems angry, defensive, and powerless at a time when the American people feel powerless themselves. Although he movingly discussed his own experiences as a military parent, that discussion seemed divorce from his continuous attempt to evince strength at a time when he seemed to have no strength. If he were so strong, why are people dying in the Kabul airport?

For these reasons, I suspect that presidential honesty about mistakes made might be more successful than the pretense that all went according to plan. Although it is true that we want what the American founders called “energy” from our presidents, it’s difficult for them to continue claiming that energy when the visual media shows all the things they weren’t able to control. Instead of loudly insisting on success, wouldn’t it resonate more if Biden quietly admitted certain failures and then worked to try to address them? Legislators can tell a narrative of success because there are no images of failure. Presidents, by contrast, don’t have this luxury. And, although we want “energy” from them, the projection of energy rings hollow when we’re visually confronted with their apparent failures. Better humbly to admit that things didn’t go according to plan and then work to rectify the situation. That narrative strikes me as much more compelling than the one the President is trying to tell.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Presidential Narratives and the Need for Humility

  1. From these remarks, it does not seem that you watched Biden’s press conference yesterday after the bombings in Kabul. If you did watch them, you did not notice how different they were from his previous remarks and from any recent president’s remarks in tragic circumstances.

    1. There was humility in that speech? There was compassion for those who died and for their families. That’s true. Is that different than other presidents? But an admission that things could have gone better? Or that they didn’t plan for certain contingencies? If you’re talking about the speech just after the bombing, I didn’t hear any of that?

  2. I think your argument is, unfortunately, well illustrated by Biden’s speech today, Tuesday, Aug 31. Angry, repetitive, defensive and lacking any sense of self-critical reflection. This speech would have been more likely effective and memorable if it were cut by two thirds, and included a fulsome commitment to assisting Congressional investigations into the conduct of the war and the withdrawal with some acknowledgment that among the lessons that needed to be learned were the mistakes they made, as well as the successes they achieved.

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