COMPETING NARRATIVES…. The root of the nation’s economic problems aren’t hard to discern. And intellectually, most Americans probably realize that the systemic failures — lack of oversight, lack of accountability, flawed tax structure, mindless fiscal irresponsibility, minimal infrastructure investment, a weak foundation on societal pillars such as health care, education, and energy — are the result of years of poor decision making and misguided priorities.

But as we struggle with the consequences, President Obama bears the brunt, not because the crises are his fault, but because he’s in charge as we deal with the wake of the Bush/Cheney debacle. Obama is the fire chief cleaning up after arsonists, with an impatient public wondering why the fires are still simmering. That Obama wasn’t responsible for lighting the fires doesn’t matter — he’s stuck with the mess, even if the other guy dropped the match.

E.J. Dionne Jr. has an interesting column today, arguing that a large part of the problem is the competing narratives of American politics. Dionne suggests, persuasively that conservatives’ narrative — government, spending, and services are necessarily bad — keeps winning, even after conservative attempts at governing fail. It’s this success that serves as a drag on the president’s poll numbers and even the unfolding fiasco in Massachusetts.

[T]he success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to “own” the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped.

It’s also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited. […]

Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.

There are, of course, competing ideas about how to change the nature of the narrative competition — Dems can start by rejecting with confidence some of the underlying premises, such as the inherent merit behind lower taxes, less spending, and fewer services, and stop being defensive about being right — but Kevin Drum’s point about the persistence of the right’s narrative through the media “noise machine” is worth emphasizing:

There’s simply no liberal counterpart to Drudge and Fox and Rush: a conservative commentariat that concedes nothing, pounds home its points like a jackhammer, repeats its themes relentlessly, and has the ear of the Washington mainstream press in a way that liberal commentators don’t.

Also note that leading liberal media figures approach the discourse in an entirely different way. The conservative machine — Fox News, Limbaugh, et al — serves to help Republicans, carrying GOP water when it has to. Progressive media voices, on the other hand, tend to be some of the Democrats’ most persistent critics, rebuking President Obama and other leading Dems for falling short of progressive ideals and expectations.

Update: Paul Waldman has a smart take on this, noting that “the fact that the years 2001-2008 provided a near-perfect test” of conservative economic ideas, “and those ideas failed miserably.” And yet “the debate is being shaped not by the president but by the opposition. We’re talking about whether government has gotten too big, not how to correct the mistakes of the Bush years and make it work better.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.