The Right-Wing Complaint of 2008
In 2008, the following was the general right-wing argument against Obama’s candidacy:
a) The self-professed “uniter” Obama had, in truth, little record of uniting disparate groups. From community organizing to politics, his preferred modus operandi was rather to praise moderation, but politick more as a radical, and sometimes go after opponents as unreasonable or illiberal. Thus the most partisan voting senator in the Congress, who talked grandly of “working across the aisle,” also urged supporters to “get in their faces” and “take a gun to a knife fight.” Acorn, Project Vote, and SEIU were not ecumenical organizations.
b) Obama knew very little about foreign affairs, or perhaps even raw human nature as it plays out in power politics abroad. At times, he seemed naive about the singular role of the U.S. in the world, especially his sense that problems with Iran, the Middle East, Venezuela, Russia, and others were somehow predicated on American arrogance and unilateralism (and neither predating nor postdating George Bush) — to be remedied by Obama’s post-racial, post-national diplomacy.
c) In truth, Obama, for all his rhetorical skills and soft-spoken charisma, had little experience in the private sector outside of politics, academia, foundations, and subsidized organizing. Consequently, he did not seem to understand the nature of profit and loss, payrolls, how businesses worked and planned, or much of anything in the private sector.
d) Obama at times seemed to lack common sense, and perhaps even common knowledge. He appeared confused about everything from the number of U.S. states to the idea that air pressure and “tune-ups” might substitute for new oil exploration. He seemed assured when reading a teleprompted script, and yet lost much of his eloquence when it came to repartee and question and answer.
e) Obama saw race as essential to his persona and his success, rarely incidental. Collate the writings and rantings of his triad of pastors and friends — Rev. Wright, Rev. Pfleger, and Rev. Meeks — and one sees a common theme of racism (sometimes overt), anti-Semitism, and class warfare. It was considered irrelevant to remind voters in 2008 that Michelle Obama had alleged that the U.S. was a downright mean country, or that she had confessed to never heretofore being very proud of her country until it gave consideration to her husband as a presidential candidate — though both sentiments would seem rare for a potential first lady.
f) Obama, it was also felt, counted on a sense of entitlement. His admissions to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard were alleged not to have been based on the usual competitive test scores or grades — and such charges were not refuted, but considered ancient history. As Harvard Law Review editor, he seemed to assume, quite rightly, that he did not have to publish an article. As a University of Chicago Law School lecturer he also rightly assumed that Chicago — and later Harvard as well — would, if he had wished, granted him tenure, again, despite nonexistent publication. Sen. Clinton argued, without much refutation, that as a state legislator Obama had both authored very little legislation and voted present on any vote that might be considered problematic for a higher political office — a charge that later disappointed supporters would come to echo, along with admissions of prior inexperience on Obama’s apart.
g) Obama, like many on the elite left, had an ambiguous attitude about affluence and its dividends. The more, as a community organizer, he had railed about bankers and unfairness, the more he had enjoyed a mini-mansion and dealt with the soon-to-be criminal Tony Rezko. The current Wall Street protests take their cue not just from presidential anger at “millionaires and billionaires,” but also from the idea that affluent young people are exempt from their own rhetorical charges.
Yet in 2008, to suggest “spread the wealth” meant anything important was to be either racist or a rank partisan. But Obama in 2001 in a Chicago public radio interview could not have been clearer about the need for government to redistribute income and his unhappiness that the Constitution seemed to prohibit that. Here is a telling excerpt in all its half-baked Foucauldian vocabulary:
But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in the society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. … I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.
Again, to refer to all of the above in 2008 was considered not so much unfair as improper.
The Proving Ground
Then came the election, and a perfect storm of events. The general unhappiness with Bush over deficits and Iraq, the recession that had started in December 2007, the absence of any incumbent vice president or president in the race for the first time since 1952, an unusually unenergetic McCain campaign, and a nakedly partisan media — all that by early September still had not given Obama the lead. But the mid-September 2008 financial crash did. And so what in the last fifty years was usually considered improbable — the election of a northern Democratic liberal — soon seemed foreordained.