Until today, Barack Obama was something of a cipher – a sphinx-like candidate who was so new to the national spotlight that the press, the pundits, and the voters had little to go on as far as the true nature of the man and his attitudes toward America, its traditions and history, as well as its citizens.
Obama assisted in keeping this mystery deliberately. His carefully crafted speeches were, at first, little more than “change and hope,” pep talks delivered with the practiced care and calculated effect of a master propagandist. Never saying anything offensive about anyone, never going “off message” in an attempt to appeal directly to the anger and unease Democrats feel about the direction of the country, Obama’s rhetoric soared and touched the deepest longings of the American soul for unity, community, and most of all, change.
The fact that he has never given more than a thumbnail’s description of how he intends to achieve these miracles didn’t matter to the press or his adoring supporters. It was a tonic to hear an American politician so optimistic about the future, so capable of arousing in even the most cynical of breasts feelings of hope and happiness. Obama had a gift that allowed people to believe in him despite scant evidence that he had the ability or even the temperament to battle the special interests and reform Washington, or ram national health insurance legislation through a reluctant Congress, or bring prosperity to all.
But the campaign season is long and a candidate is tested as for no other elective office in the world. Eventually – finally – there would be some kind of reckoning; a revelatory episode that would show the press and the voter the man behind the pretty words, silken voice, and bountiful charisma.
The realization that Obama is an elitist who lacks a basic understanding of how the majority of Americans live and what is important to them will no doubt have far reaching consequences for his candidacy. But beyond the immediate problem for Obama’s disconnect from ordinary people is the seeming contradiction between his rhetoric on the campaign trail and how he has conducted himself throughout his career in seeking to achieve high office. Ultimately, it goes back to the fundamental question we ask of all candidates.
Who is Barack Obama?
We have had hints of the man who resides within Obama – the inner voice that talks to him, shapes his thoughts, animates his view of the world. But these hints have been from those close to him, those the candidate himself has relied on for advice, friendship, and mentoring. His wife, whose comment about her husband’s candidacy making her proud about America for the first time in her adult life as well as her contention that America is a profoundly “mean” country inhabited by “cynics, sloths, and complacents” was shocking because it opened up a line of questioning into Obama’s own beliefs.
Michelle Obama’s casual confession about lacking pride in America was the first time people paused in mid-jump on the Obama bandwagon to ask themselves some serious questions about the tangle of thoughts in the candidate’s mind. Just what does this guy really believe? What is the core of his personal, most intimate thoughts about America and her people?
Then along came Reverend Jeremiah Wright and suddenly, the questions started to pile up. Along with revelations about his relationship with unrepentant domestic terrorists William Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn as well as a shady Chicago Machine fixer Tony Rezko, people were starting to ask “Will the real Barack Obama please stand up?”
How could this bright, optimistic, sincere youngish politician be associated with these characters who represented the worst of America when the candidate himself was appealing to the best in all of us?
It is a mystery until you examine the contours of Obama’s life and see a man who for a very long time has had his eyes on high office. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – unless the ambition takes over and your principles are tossed out the window, your life becoming a slave to career advancement.
This is the seeming disconnect between Obama on the stump and Obama the careerist. Where the Obama on the stump preaches racial healing, the careerist Obama embraces a Reverend Wright whose church was one of the most visible in the African American community in Chicago and Wright himself a nationally renowned minister. For more than 20 years Obama sat in the pews of a church run by an admirer of Louis Farrakhan and believer in AIDS conspiracy theories. And yet, his attendance also brought him respect in the African American community – as it was fully intended to do.
The episode with Wright is instructive: the idea that the Obama we see on the stump could believe in anything the wild eyed, bigoted, America hating Wright believed in was so farfetched, that all it took to dispense with Wright as a campaign issue (temporarily anyway) were some soothing words about race delivered before a nation willing to forgive the initial falsehoods the candidate told about not knowing of Wright’s bigotry. Other, more troubling questions about why anyone who loved this country continued to attend services at a church whose statement of beliefs was so at odds with what most of the rest of us believe were answered with the incredible notion that the candidate believed Wright was dispensing a message of hope.
More disconnect from the speechifying Obama came from the continuing revelations regarding his long time friend and political patron Tony Rezko. Obama on the stump talked of reforming politics, of being a champion against special interests. But Obama the careerist shunned the political reform movement in Chicago to lie down with the likes of Rezko, who not only raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for his campaigns but introduced him to other fat cat donors who would prove valuable when the time came to run for the US senate.
How can someone spouting political reform on the stump be tied up with Rezko, Mayor Daley, and others while endorsing for office proven crooks like Cook County Commissioner the late John Stroger and other Chicago Machine politicians?
A similar “What was he thinking” question could be raised when discussing his association with perhaps the most grotesque of all the characters that have emerged this campaign season; former Weather Underground bombers William Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn. One can only shake the head in disbelief that the potential next president of the United States is on a first name basis with someone who is proud of bombing the Pentagon.
Again, it isn’t so much what Ayers stood for as much as what Ayers could do for an ambitious liberal seeking his first public office. Ayers was very well respected in the far left circles of the Senate district Obama was running in. An introduction to Ayers from the retiring incumbent was necessary if Obama were to win the seat.
If the relationship had stopped there, no one would blame Obama for doing what was necessary to win. But over the years, Obama kept up with the association by appearing in forums with Ayers and even serving on the board of a left wing foundation with him.
Again, it seems impossible that the Obama of the stump could find anything about Mr. Ayers remotely appealing. But Ayers has a certain cachet with the far left in this country – the shock troops who promote and work for liberal causes and staff the campaigns of liberal Democrats. The careerist Obama found that Ayers name opened doors that may have been normally shut to a young African American politician positioning himself for a US senate run.
Obama has clearly been an opportunist in his political career. All good politicians are. And the best ones seize their opportunities without hesitation and run as far as luck and brains can take them. Obama has been lucky. He has also been as calculating a politician as we have seen since Lyndon Johnson ruled the senate. Both men proved to have towering ambition and enormous political gifts.
But Johnson also suffered from this apparent disconnect – a down home country politician who played hardball on the Hill as well as it can be played. Johnson had problematic associations and connections also, men that made one wonder what kind of a man was this whose friends wheeled and dealed their way through Washington while Johnson railed against their kind on the Senate floor.
In the end, the answer to the riddle is that both men set a goal early in their careers and never let anything get in the way of achieving it. This includes principles espoused in their public speeches which for both men had a nasty habit of contradicting what they were doing in the political trenches. We are just finding this out about Obama – as we are discovering that the candidate is also an elitist of the first order.
Last Sunday in San Francisco, in off-the-cuff remarks before a group of rich donors, Obama let his true feelings about average Americans be known:
But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is — so, we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide health care for every American. So we’ll go down a series of talking points.
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
By trying to diagnose what is wrong with the Rust Belt middle class, Obama reveals a shockingly cartoonish understanding of white people – in its own way as ignorant as Reverend Wright’s clownish demonizations of whites. This is an Obama out of touch with regular folks, speaking in disparaging tones about people who take their religion seriously or have an abiding love of the outdoors represented by their owning a firearm (hunting being a second religion in Pennsylvania). It was a dumbfounding moment, showing a candidate who views about half of America as victims of their own bitter frustrations.
Obama later issued a “clarifying statement” after his campaign tried to plead ignorance about what he said:
“Senator Obama has said many times in this campaign that Americans are understandably upset with their leaders in Washington for saying anything to win elections while failing to stand up to the special interests and fight for an economic agenda that will bring jobs and opportunity back to struggling communities. And if John McCain wants a debate about who’s out of touch with the American people, we can start by talking about the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that he once said offended his conscience but now wants to make permanent,”
Trying to shift the focus to McCain is a weak move. He did not address what has everyone up in arms – the disconnect between Obama on the stump who would never denigrate working people as he did, and the Obama talking to liberal elitists – apparently like himself – explaining his understanding of how the rubes live and what’s wrong with them.
This revelation has a chance to do more damage to his candidacy than 10 Reverend Wrights. It is doubtful that Obama could find a venue to give a speech trying to explain the naked elitism he revealed in just a few sentences to a group of mega rich contributors. Even if he did give a speech, what could he say? Just about anything he came up with would sound even more condescending.
The more we learn about Obama, the wider the gap grows between the messianic character on the stump whose golden voice and pitch perfect rhetoric has inspired millions of people and the coldly calculating careerist politician whose elitism has blinded him to the struggles and hopes of ordinary people.
The two Obamas are irreconcilable. And the confusion felt by many will almost certainly translate into a loss of support for the candidate in these final primaries that will determine the Democratic nominee for president.
Rick Moran is PJM Chicago editor; his own blog is Right Wing Nut House.
[Correction: the article initially misstated the city where the fund-raising event took place; it was San Francisco, not Los Angeles]