“I know Joe,” Michelle Obama said in her speech at the Democratic convention. “He will govern as someone who’s lived a life that the rest of us can recognize.”
The former first lady spent much of her time attacking President Trump, and for good reason. But her emphasis on Joe Biden’s personal story is just as significant as her takedown of his rival.
“When Joe was a kid, Joe’s father lost his job,” she recounted. “When he was a young senator, Joe lost his wife and his baby daughter. And when he was vice president, he lost his beloved son. ... His life is a testament to getting back up, and he is going to channel that same grit and passion to pick us all up, to help us heal and guide us forward.”
I’ve long believed that many voters do not choose a candidate based on policies or issues. Instead, they decide based on feelings and instincts — on a sense of connection with a candidate, on a belief that she or he understands their lives and families. And the best way to make that connection is through telling stories.
A good story, writes political strategist Mark McKinnon, is “like a magnet, and voters are like iron filings. It just pulls those voters into your orbit.” Successful presidencies do the same thing, as Barack Obama once told Charlie Rose on CBS: “The mistake of my first term ... was thinking that this job was about getting the policy right, and that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
The power of narrative transcends party, ideology, race and gender. Ronald Reagan was a master storyteller, and one of his favorites was about a little boy digging furiously at a large mound of manure. When asked why, the boy replied, “There has to be a pony in there somewhere.” In just a few words, Reagan conveyed a sense of buoyant optimism that elevated his entire career.
The only two Democrats to win the presidency in almost 44 years, Obama and Bill Clinton, were both superb narrators. In 1992, Clinton leaned heavily on his life story: a father who died before he was born and a single mom who battled to get an education. Then he turned his defeats in the early primaries into a political gift, dubbing himself “the Comeback Kid” as his candidacy revived.
Obama told the same stories so many times that his audiences could recite them in unison. One was about taking Michelle on their first date, driving an old car with floorboards so rusted they could see the street. How many voters thought, as they heard that tale, “I had a car like that!”
Biden’s narrative has two chapters. The first is his father’s fight to find a job and provide for his family. As Biden often relates, “My dad always said, ‘Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down but how quickly he gets up.’” The second chapter details his personal tragedies: the loss of a wife and two children. “Joe knows the anguish of sitting at a table with an empty chair,” Michelle said.
Americans love stories of courage and redemption — of heroes who triumph over adversity — and Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, can contribute a great deal to that narrative. She’s the child of immigrants, raised by a single mother, a graduate of a historically Black university and a biracial woman married to a white Jewish man. Like Barack Hussein Obama, she has a middle name that conveys her heritage: Devi, which means “goddess” in Sanskrit.
Together, Biden and Harris will be facing an opponent who is also an effective storyteller. As McKinnon writes of Trump: “The reality TV star understands the power of narrative. He identified a threat: outside forces trying to change the way we live. And an opportunity: Make America great again. He established victims: blue-collar workers who have lost jobs or experienced a declining standard of living. He suggested villains: Mexican immigrants, China, establishment elites. He proposed solutions: Build a wall, tear up unfair trade deals. And the hero was revealed: Donald Trump.”
The election could turn on these dueling narratives, as voters ask themselves, “Did ‘the hero’ keep his promises?” Or do voters prefer a team whose life stories provide a testament to getting back up and connect on an emotional level to the rest of us?
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com. This column was distributed by Universal Syndicate.