On the Elitist Charge

20 04 2008

Frank Rich on “bittergate,” and the elitism charge against Obama today in his NYT column today:

However out of touch Mr. Obama is with “ordinary Americans,” many Americans, ordinary and not, have concluded that the talking heads blathering about blue-collar men, religion, guns and those incomprehensible “YouTube young people” are even more condescending and out of touch. When a Washington doyenne like Mary Matalin, freighted with jewelry, starts railing about elitists on “Meet the Press,” as she did last Sunday, it’s pure farce. It’s typical of the syndrome that the man who plays a raging populist on CNN, Lou Dobbs, dismissed Mr. Obama last week by saying “we don’t need another Ivy League-educated knucklehead.” Mr. Dobbs must know whereof he speaks, since he’s Harvard ’67.

Maureen Dowd had a different take.

The thorny questions Obama got in the debate were absolutely predictable, yet he seemed utterly unprepared and annoyed by them. He did not do well for the same reason he failed to outmaneuver Hillary in a year’s worth of debates: he disdains the convention, the need for sound bites and witty flick-offs and game-changing jabs. He needs to be less philosophical and abstract, and more visceral and personal. Some of the topics he acted dismissive about are real things on the minds of many Americans.

[snip]

Asked about his friendly relationship with the former Weather Underground anarchist William Ayers — an association that The Wall Street Journal suggests could turn into the Swift Boat of 2008 given Ayers’s statement that “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough” — Obama defended him with a line that only the eggheads orbiting his campaign could appreciate. Ayers, he said, is “a professor of English in Chicago.”

Obama has to prove to Americans that, despite his exotic background and multicultural looks, he shares or at least respects their values and understands why they would be upset about his associations with the Rev. Wright and an ex-Weatherman.

In a way, I think each of these different criticisms a lot to do with a certain missed opportunity. After Senator John Edwards dropped out, a populist void was left in the race that the Obama campaign has largely conceded to Senator Hillary Clinton. By not challenging her among voters earning $50K a year or less, particularly in Texas and Ohio, the Obama campaign allowed her fighter message to resonate with more of that demographic.

Obama also has not really incorporated a truly compelling populist message into his stump speeches save for blasting NAFTA or Hillary’s support for it. Instead, he often relies on the support of union and other grassroots activists on the ground to make the case for him.

This has struck me as rather peculiar considering how much corporate cash Clinton has inhaled even as she rails against the corporate influence in Washington D.C.

For example, she has received more than $750,000 in federally lobbyists compared to $92,000 from state or local lobbyists, but none from federally registered ones. According to Center for Responsive Politics, Hillary Clinton has received $1,157,939 in PAC money compared to $250 for Obama as of late February 2008. (For more information on PACs, click here.) Senator Clinton also loaned her own campaign $5 million, which is more than Michelle and Barack Obama’s entire net worth. Her anti-corporate and anti-trade message also seems a bit strange in light of the fact her campaign employs a number of lobbyists for the pharmaceutical, credit, oil, and health care industries.

Now while it is true that just because a donor gives you money it does not mean you are in his pocket, the practice still merits some scrutiny. As Clinton herself admitted in a different context on Wednesday’s ABC’s Democratic debate, “It is clear that, as leaders, we have a choice who we associate with and who we apparently give some kind of seal of approval to.” Perhaps, the most vivid example of the dissonance was Mark Penn advising Clinton on how to court white working class voters anxious about trade and economic dislocation while also helping his client the Colombian government get their trade approved by Congress despite fierce union opposition.

Of course, Obama is not pure on this issue either. Some of the biggest contributors to his campaign included those currently working for various corporate titans, but certainly not to the degree Clinton has.

The point here is that between the recent millionaire Harvard law school grad and the other millionaire Yale law school grad competing for top spot on the Democratic ticket, Clinton certainly more than Obama typifies the profile of a prominent elite politician.

That said, the Obama campaign needs to blend his populist message with that of togetherness. He seemed to have alluded to this in his More Perfect Union speech in Philadelphia when he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

I found this to be one of the more under appreciated and understated points in his speech about how divisions operate in America. Obama is subtle drawing an interesting parallel between economic anxiety experience by many white Americans brought on by domestic and global pressures creating an “us versus them” scenario. Sometimes the “them” is foreign labor, sometimes their “immigrants” or simply persons of a different race. In each situation the anger, resentment, and frustration is not directed against those responsible for those perpetuating this cycle of impoverishing workers, but instead at other workers.

He tried to fine tune some of this in another admittedly wonky speech on the economy.

…[I]nstead of sensible reform that rewarded success and freed the creative forces of the market, too often we’ve excused and even embraced an ethic of greed, corner cutting, insider dealing, things that have always threatened the long-term stability of our economic system. Too often we’ve lost that common stake in each other’s prosperity. Now, let me be clear.

[snip]

Our economy was undergoing a fundamental shift, carried along by the swift currents of technological change and globalization. For the sake of our common prosperity, we needed to adapt to keep markets competitive and fair. Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one, aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so we encouraged a winner take all, anything goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy.

Not exactly the stuff that is going to fire up the nearest union local, but the sentiment will surely be appreciated.

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