How I Will Judge the Inauguration Speech

By this: Did he tell good stories? Did he tell stories that actually supported his points? This is hard to fake. It was easy for Dr. Eileen Consorti to tell me that studies existed to support her surgery recommendation but — the hard part — she never supplied those studies, probably because they don’t exist. Pronouncements are easy, stories hard. It’s easy to say X and Y (“we will . . . this is a time of  . . . “) but if X and Y are just wishful thinking it won’t be easy to come up with a decent story — or any story — that supports them. If Obama understands how the world works, he should be able to tell stories that support his views.

Lyndon Johnson was a great politician and an excellent storyteller. Presidents since Johnson have been worse politicians and worse storytellers. Obama’s current popularity may reflect something in us rather than something in him. Right after 9/11 George W. Bush enjoyed enormous popularity. His speeches at that time, at least those I heard, contained no stories, which I think revealed that he understood little or nothing about the situation. (I would have told stories about overreaction.) The dismal outcome was foreshadowed. His popularity at the time was due to something in us, not something in him.

More The speech contained about one-quarter of a story. My expectations are hereby lowered.

Lack of stories at a high school graduation.

20 Responses to “How I Will Judge the Inauguration Speech”

  1. Nathan Myers Says:

    Reagan told stories. He was a lousy president until he began to go senile, and began repudiating much of what he had stood for. His stories, as appealing as they were to many Americans, were very frequently the sort that would be called lies if we told them ourselves. What is a lie, after all, but an appealing story that misrepresents the facts?

    Bush’s failures in storytelling reveal not that he couldn’t come up with a decent story, but that he couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a decent lie. That’s contempt.

  2. seth Says:

    What I remember about Reagan’s stories is that they were often wrong, as you say, and simple-minded. Not my idea of good stories.

  3. mike kenny Says:

    I suspect lots of people thought Reagan’s stories were good stories. Given we can be slaves to confirmation bias, it seems one man’s good story is another man’s crap story. I suspect we go with what sounds right to us. Someone who is conservative and has perhaps his whole life looked for evidence of conservative stories being true, will easily believe Reagan, and likewise, someone who has been a life-long liberal will have gathered much evidence on the contrary.

    I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing though. Lawyers argue against each other, and it seems usually they are providing counter-narratives. If the legal system uses this approach to determine issues of grave importance, perhaps it’s fine in government too. We craft plausible narratives and counter-narratives until one seems to win the debate as most people sign on to it, or something like that. I recently discussed herenarratives in response to Robin Hanson asking me to give evidence favoring fiction as a good means of theorizing comparable to other theorizing.

  4. david Says:

    I’d say Regan was a lousy president in that I don’t agree with his policies, priorities, and values. However, he was an effective president in convincing people to go along with his agenda. I’m sure the story telling was part of that effectiveness. What’s interesting about Obama is that he combines intellect, emotional maturity, and rhetorical ability in a way that’s rare.

    Also, regarding stories, see George Lakoff’s (linguistics professor at Berkeley) work on narratives and framing as an explanation of why progressives had been loosing elections they should have won. Obama seems especially good at reframing the debate…his inaugural speech did it repeatedly.

    I can’t describe the relief I felt when I heard Robert Siegel refer to him as “President Obama” for the first time.

  5. Patrik Says:

    What I remember about Reagan’s stories is that they were often wrong, as you say, and simple-minded. Not my idea of good stories.

    So, now tell us a story that supports your points of Reagan stories being wrong and simple-minded.

    Obama’s current popularity may reflect something in us rather than something in him.

    Obama, nebulous? Taking on any form he wishes? Nah……

  6. seth Says:

    Patrik, perhaps you could first tell a story that Reagan told that wasn’t simple-minded.

  7. Nathan Myers Says:

    … for extra points if it wasn’t wrong too.

  8. John S. Says:

    So Seth what did you think? I personally thought the speech was pretty insipid. I was watching the coverage on the NY Times website and saw people in the audience yawning.

    As to your comments to Patrik above, you (and some other commenters) made a claim. Patrik is asking you to back it up. Instead, you turn around and say no, you try to disprove our claim.

    Is Dr. Eileen Consorti reading this? Maybe what she should do is follow your example, and ask you to provide her with the data that disproves her surgery recommendation.

  9. seth Says:

    I didn’t like Obama’s speech. Too predictable. It would be nice if he understood how the world works better than the rest of us, but apparently not. Philip Weiss didn’t like it either — he gave it a B- — but, obviously wishing it had been better, he later raised the grade to B+/A-. Grade inflation.

    If I said “2 + 2 = 4″ and you said, “prove it” I would think you must have some special knowledge (or special delusion). It’s what you knew, not what I knew, that would be interesting. So I would ask for a counterexample. In an article in The New Yorker, Veronica Geng called for regular Stanford-Binet testing of President Reagan.

    The data that makes me think Dr. Consorti is wrong are the results of the searches that both I and my mom (who specializes in this sort of literature search) did to find the studies Dr. Consorti claimed existed. We came up empty. Dr. Consorti had told me the studies would be easy to find.

  10. Patrik Says:

    Patrik, perhaps you could first tell a story that Reagan told that wasn’t simple-minded.

    Tsk tsk tsk. Seth, I am surprised at you. Your response is almost childlike, and not to mention very ironic. You won’t follow your own advice!?

    Well, if that is the case so, you could have written this about yourself:

    It was easy for Seth Roberts to tell me that Reagan’s stories were simple-minded and wrong but — the hard part — he never supplied any evidence for such an assertion, probably because it doesn’t exist. Pronouncements are easy, stories hard. It’s easy to say X and Y (”we will . . . this is a time of . . . “) but if X and Y are just wishful thinking it won’t be easy to come up with a decent story — or any story — that supports them.

  11. seth Says:

    Patrik, my paragraph about 2 + 2 = 4 has the evidence you asked for.

  12. John S. Says:

    So you’re saying the idea that Reagan was a dunce is self-evident, like 2+2=4. So obvious that you don’t have to provide any evidence for it.

    I’m sure that in Dr. Eileen Consorti’s world, the idea that you need surgery for a small hernia is also self-evident. Maybe she read it in the New Yorker.

    Or is this all just a self-experiment in hypocrisy? If so, it seems to be a smashing success!

  13. Patrik Says:

    Seth,

    You know full well that:

    an article in The New Yorker, Veronica Geng called for regular Stanford-Binet testing of President Reagan.

    is not the rhetorical equivalent to 2 + 2 = 4.

    John S. poignantly check-mated you on your maddening hypocrisy, which I find a bit disheartening (your hypocrisy, that is) as I find your blog very interesting and find you willing to challenge many mainstream ideas, usually rationally. There are many things you and I do not agree on, which does not bother me in the least bit (and why I continue to read your blog), but you, hypocritically, not being able to overcome your severe political biases and rationally address the issue at hand is disappointing to say the very least.

    You also did the same here:

    http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2008/12/15/how-bad-is-ldl-cholesterol/

  14. John S. Says:

    You know, I’m not even saying that Reagan’s stories weren’t a bunch of lies. I just did a Google search on “Reagan’s lies” and came up with a number of stories you could have mentioned when Patrik asked you. For example, Reagan is supposed to have claimed that he was a photographer in WWII and one of the first to photograph the Nazi concentration camps — when the truth is that he never left Hollywood during the war. That’s what it says on the internet at least, but maybe Patrik is able to debunk this. Perhaps Reagan never said this at all. I don’t know. I don’t believe everything I read on the internet, nor would I believe everything I read in the New Yorker (if I ever actually read it outside my dentist’s waiting room).

    My guess is that because you perceive Patrik to be a conservative, you feel you can dismiss whatever he says. That’s too bad, Seth, because I’m sure there are a lot of people who dismiss self-experimentation as a load of self-delusional crap, and would just as easily dismiss you and your ideas out of hand.

    What a disappointment to find feet of clay on one of my blog heroes.

  15. seth Says:

    Nothing to do with politics. William Buckley, the noted conservative, told the following joke: What do you get when you combine Ronald Reagan and Marlon Brando? Answer: Rebel Without a Clue.

  16. Patrik Says:

    What a disappointment to find feet of clay on one of my blog heroes.

    Could not have said it better myself. Your hypocrisy, evasiveness and unwillingness to address the issue speak volumes and disappoint us.

    Ultimately you are no different than those who claim X is Y, sheesh, everyone knows that therefore I will not bother backing it up. A variant of the ad populum and ad verecundiam fallacies.

  17. Tom in TX Says:

    Seth, when did Buckley make this joke about Reagan? It would have a much different meaning in 2008 than in 1968.

  18. Tom in TX Says:

    Since I started paying attention to politics (early 1970s), IMHO Reagan was easily the best President. All the others (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush) are in a close race for last.

  19. seth Says:

    The article that reported Buckley’s joke appeared around 1990. So I guess the joke was made around 1985-1990.

  20. christopher molineux Says:

    If you want to see some constructive analysis on the inauguration speech there’s a pretty good piece at: http://psworkbench.blogspot.com/ called “5 reasons why you shouldn’t speak like Barack Obama”