Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama has been labeled as aloof, and ever more out-of-touch, taking counsel from a small group of trusted lieutenants. After all these years, still uncomfortable in front of live audiences (absent his often stirring eulogies), without the use of his ever-faithful teleprompter.  He still demonstrates what some say reflect his tenure in academia, lecturing his students who are not quite up to speed on the syllabus he presented at the first class and from which he never deviates.

Before 2012, Obama had employed three rather defined narratives from the soaring, mesmerizing riffs of 2008, through his more pedestrian efforts such as the Gulf Oil Spill, the Obamacare roll-out disaster, and the various scandals unfolding under his watch.


For Obama's second term, he adopted the utilitarian, almost mix-and-match, null-set narrative.  

The null-set narrative can best be explained as an empty narrative, ready to be filled with anything expedient. Obama’s is specifically targeted at the core constituencies of Democrats, the left wing, and single women.  In the null-set narrative every issue is parsed to meet the expectations and worldview of those core constituencies.  Hence the conflation of the immediate treachery of the Islamic State (not part of the narrative) with the long-term concern of climate change (core to the narrative); the San Bernardino massacre (not part of the narrative) with the call for more gun control (part of the narrative), and so on.

Evidently, Obama planned to use it for the remainder of his presidency. After all, this null-set narrative could be used to cover any news, strategy or, even, scandal.  The null-set narrative appeared to suffice (against all odds) or even succeed.

However, this all came to a grinding halt when confronted with the coming of the Islamic State, most frequently referred to as ISIS.

  1. ISIS is rising?  They are the JV.
  2. ISIS just slaughtered 140 in Paris?  ISIS is contained.
  3. Islamic terrorism?  Somehow compared to the battle over gun control in the US.
  4. Women (and girls) sold into slavery and sexual bondage?  We have our own war-on-women in the U.S. to contend with.
  5. ISIS is the greatest enemy?  Climate change is the larger challenge.
  6. The Homeland is safe.  Mass slaughter in San Bernardino

Witness the recent Oval Office address on the status of the ISIS campaign.  Some anomalies:

  1. It was given from the Oval Office, yet the president delivered the address from a lectern set in front of the desk, negating from an optic point of view, the power of the Oval Office.
  2. Obama refuses to use the term for the Islamic State that is used worldwide --  ISIS (by a factor of 10x).  There is probably a viable academic argument in favor of the use of ISIL.  But Communication 101 requires that you use the term your audience understands (and accepts).
  3. Obama still has a problem with how to characterize the enemy here. Perhaps he should just leave it as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTexas man indicted over allegations he created fraudulent campaign PACs FISA shocker: DOJ official warned Steele dossier was connected to Clinton, might be biased Pompeo’s Cairo speech more ‘back to the future’ than break with past MORE did, in the terms laid out by GW Bush 14 year ago:  "We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression." Nothing more, no further explanation, needs to be said.

In effect, we've witnessed the slow, subtle, yet direct descent from the Barack of 'Hope and Change' to the Obama of 'Hope so' and 'Hope not'.

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune  had this to say about the growing power of the political narrative:

“Narrative has power ... The danger comes when politicians and their operatives essentially use "narrative" as a shorthand for "bull," the version of the truth that they want us to believe even when they don't believe it.”

Page's words are becoming ever-more prophetic especially since the president met up with ISIS.  Here is where the lack of an effective narrative, that encompasses our nation's hopes, thoughts, fears, and yes, even prayers, is having a devastating effect on the nation, with repercussions rippling  throughout the world. 

Yes, the 'Narrative has power ... The danger comes' ... when the current narrative no longer encompasses the world as we (or Obama) thought we once knew it.  This is a world where ISIS is signing up 20,000-30,000 new recruits a month, where they have created a state larger than the land mass of Great Britain, where women and girls are sold as so much chattel, beheadings and crucifixions of enemy 'Crusaders' (as well as gays) are an everyday occurrence.

Yes, the 'Narrative has power ... The danger comes' ... when this narrative void leaves the door open to demagogues and their ilk   -- as has happened all too often in the nation's recent past. 

Payack is president and chief word analyst for The Global Language Monitor.