Jul 1 2008

Obama the Snob?

Hanging the ‘elitist’ label on another Democratic candidate

President Barack Obama--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Barack Obama–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s safe to assume that Barack Obama knew he could expect certain lines of attack when he decided to run for president: whispers about his religious beliefs, for example, or questions regarding his patriotism. And sure enough, those issues came up almost as soon as the campaign started. But it’s difficult to imagine that Obama—whose one grandfather was a high-school dropout and the other a colonial servant—expected to fend off the accusation that he is “elitist.”

Corporate media coverage of political campaigns often rests on certain storylines, though, that don’t necessarily bear any relationship to reality—Al Gore the exaggerator vs. compassionate conservative George W. Bush in the 2000 election, to take one example (Extra!, 1-2/01). Somewhere along the way in 2008, pundits decided to rerun the storyline used for Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 (Extra!, 7-8/04), asking of Obama: Is he one of us?

This storyline was most conspicuous in April, when comments Obama made at a San Francisco fundraiser were reported on the Huffington Post website (4/11/08). Having a casual conversation about the challenges of the Pennsylvania primary, Obama attempted to explain why some voters were politically apathetic: They’ve “been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government,” Obama said. “They feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it.” He added that “our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives.”

Then Obama made the comment that would provide the controversy:

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.

The ensuing media frenzy—christened “Bittergate”—fleshed out a campaign narrative for Obama that had been developing for some time. The media weren’t always clear about what they meant by “elitist” (see sidebar), but Obama’s lawyerly, academic pedigree paired with his liberal political worldview seemed enough to qualify him for the label. With “elitist” routinely paired with “liberal” in corporate media discourse, the fact that Obama had recently (albeit dubiously) been named the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate only reinforced the message. (See sidebar)

The arugula issue

The “elitist” tag was hung on Obama’s lapel long before the “bitter” comments were reported. Before the Iowa caucuses, for example, there was a minor flare-up when the candidate spoke to farmers about crop prices: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” As a New York Times blog pointed out (Caucus, 7/27/07), there aren’t any Whole Foods stores in Iowa; the nearest one from where he was speaking was 100 miles away, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Columnist George Will (Washington Post, 8/12/07) chimed in with a column charging this was a Michael-Dukakis-in-a-tank moment, and was able to reprise the line months later on ABC’s This Week (4/13/08), with help from host George Stephanopoulos. This was apparently a “gaffe” because Iowa farmers presumably wouldn’t know a thing about exotic salad greens—even though some noted at the time (Media Matters, 9/24/07) that arugula is sold in Iowa—and grown there too.

But if it wasn’t arugula, it was something else.

Campaigning in Iowa, Obama “sounded self-consciously pristine at times, as if he was too refined for the muck of politics,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd declared (2/14/07), before issuing a warning: “That’s not how you beat anybody but Alan Keyes.”

Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier penned an outraged column (3/17/08) warning that Obama had “better watch his step,” since he was “bordering on arrogance” and “can be a bit too cocky for his own good.” (An example of his “self-importance and superiority”: citing his 2002 opposition to the Iraq invasion as a sign of courage.) Obama and his wife, for that matter, “ooze entitlement.” Fournier stopped short of calling the Obamas “uppity.”

Bowling for authenticity

And, of course, questions were raised about Obama’s “authenticity” when he stopped at a bowling alley in Pennsylvania on March 29. Obama’s reported score of 37 (albeit for only a partial game, with some frames bowled by children) was taken as evidence that the press was onto something with this “elitist” thing, and the footage ran incessantly on cable news shows.

On MSNBC’s Hardball (3/31/08), host Chris Matthews declared, “This gets very ethnic, but the fact that he’s good at basketball doesn’t surprise anybody, but the fact that he’s that terrible at bowling does make you wonder.” What Matthews thought you were supposed to wonder about was not exactly clear, but the footage ran repeatedly as Hardball’s assembled pundits cackled at Obama’s performance, with Newsweek’s Howard Fineman saying: “This is just killing him, Chris. Don’t show this over and over again.” Matthews added that “it isn’t the most macho form there.”

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd seemed genuinely miffed by Obama’s performance, writing (4/16/08) that her working-class upbringing instilled “a passion for bowling. . . . My bowling trophy was one of my most cherished possessions.”

The problems of using bowling scores as a gauge of authenticity were brushed aside. As Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez (4/3/08) reminded, “While jokes are being made of Obama’s bowling skills, 40 years ago it was not easy for a black man to even enter some bowling alleys in the country.”

As the campaign wore on, similar episodes would capture the pundits’ attention. MNSBC’s Chris Matthews and David Shuster seemed perplexed (4/10/08) by Obama’s choice of beverage during a campaign stop at an Indiana diner. Obama apparently turned down a coffee in favor of orange juice, which both reporters seemed to think an obvious no-no. “It’s just one of those sort of weird things,” explained Shuster.

You know, when the owner of the diner says, “Here, have some coffee,” you say, “Yes, thank you,” and, “Oh, can I also please have some orange juice, in addition to this?” You don’t just say, “No, I’ll take orange juice,” and then turn away and start shaking hands.

Matthews chimed in with further lessons in diner etiquette: “You don’t ask for a substitute on the menu.”


The next day, the Huffington Post “Bittergate” story would break, and the Obama-is-elitist storyline would seem to be cast in stone. Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty led her April 28 piece by wildly exaggerating Obama’s comments:

It’s hard to know which was worse about Barack Obama’s dismissal of small-town voters as narrow-minded, churchgoing gun nuts: the original arrogance of his remarks or his repeated attempts to explain them.

Noting that Obama had made the remarks “at a private fund raiser, where the rich and powerful gather for shrimp and special access,” Tumulty warned that the Democrats risked nominating someone “who seems alien to the average working stiff. . . . [Obama] is seen by many downscale voters as the candidate of elites, if not elitist himself.” Tumulty lectured Obama as someone who “should know better than any the sting of being lumped into a stereotype and dismissed”—which struck an odd note, coming as it did in the same paragraph where Tumulty dismissed San Francisco as “a regional headquarters for secular condescension.”

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd penned her furious April 16 column (“I’m not bitter,” was her lead sentence), highlighting her own working-class credentials, in particular her religious upbringing in a family of Reagan Democrats who “weren’t bitter; they were bonding.” She contrasted her just-plain folks with Obama, who came off not only as an elitist but an intellectual to boot, with a “detached egghead quality.” “Obama comes across less like a candidate in Pennsylvania than an anthropologist in Borneo,” Dowd wrote:

He has often appeared to be observing the odd habits of the colorful locals, resisting as the natives try to fatten him up like a foie gras goose, sampling Pennsylvania beer in a sports bar with his tie tight, awkwardly accepting bowling shoes as a gift from Bob Casey, examining the cheese and salami at the Italian Market here as intriguing ethnic artifacts, purchasing Utz Cheese Balls at a ShopRite in East Norriton and quizzing the women working in a chocolate factory about whether they could possibly really like the sugary doodads.

How exactly looking at deli products or buying cheese-flavored snacks marks you as an elitist Dowd didn’t make clear. One might argue that Dowd is such a savvy student of social interaction that you should take her word for it—but her claims of expertise on such matters were undercut by the fact that she was unable to figure out that Obama was giving the bowling shoes to Casey, not receiving them, as a New York Times correction acknowledged (4/23/08). What Dowd’s list really illustrates is that once media have hung a label on you, anything that you do—or don’t do—can be depicted as confirming it, with the most unremarkable behavior (buying Cheese Balls?) presented as evidence that Obama is “unable to even feign Main Street cred.”

Days later, Dowd would write (4/27/08) that at a campaign stop in Indiana, “Obama did his best to shoo away the pesky elitist label,” but the Times columnist was unimpressed. When Obama responded to a reporter’s question about his fashion sense by saying he buys “five of the same suit and then I patch them up and wear them repeatedly,” Dowd noted that he did not disclose the brand.

‘The way we live’

Obama’s supposed efforts to shed the label that media had affixed to him became a popular theme in coverage; “with sleeves rolled up and folksy on his mind” was the beginning of a New York Times story (5/6/08) about Obama’s alleged change in style. Of course, the pundits didn’t describe themselves as the audience for Obama’s makeover; the media establishment was just worried whether Obama could, as NBC’s Chris Matthews put it (5/18/08), “win over regular Democrats.” On NBC Nightly News (4/26/08), anchor Lester Holt noted that Obama, “stung by accusations of elitism, seems to be taking some unusual steps to recast his image among so-called regular voters.”

On PBS’s NewsHour, New York Times columnist and amateur sociologist David Brooks mused (4/18/08): “The larger issue is, what kind of guy is Obama? Is he someone who bowls a 37 and doesn’t know anything about the way American people actually live, or does he actually get the way we live?”

In an April 18 Times column, Brooks raised the same issues, noting that “voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences.” Brooks wrote:

When Obama goes to a church infused with James Cone-style liberation theology, when he makes ill-informed comments about working-class voters, when he bowls a 37 for crying out loud, voters are going to wonder if he’s one of them.

Brooks, it should be noted, later claimed on MSNBC (6/2/08) that “Obama’s problem is he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who can go into an Applebee’s salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there”—despite the fact that Applebee’s doesn’t have a salad bar (Hoffmania, 6/2/08).

But it was hard not to find a racial subtext in a group of highly paid white journalists worrying that a black candidate might not be “one of us.”

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (5/13/08) commented that “being an African-American” meant that Obama had to put more effort into showing “who you are, introduce yourself as a person, not as an identity group, but as a human being, and connect with people.” But such efforts need to meet Matthews’ standards; Obama’s choice of pool as an alternative to bowling was not quite there. “Playing pool, not a bad start, but it’s not what most people play. People with money play pool these days,” Matthews said. “The guys who have pool rooms in their house in the basement. You know what those tables cost?”

Some reporters are at least aware that these storylines can be grafted onto a campaign whether or not they reflect any underlying reality. On CNN’s media show Reliable Sources (5/11/08), Time’s Tumulty commented:

There are a lot of narratives that the press bought into in this campaign. Don’t forget the inevitability of the Rudy Giuliani campaign and Fred Thompson’s great appeal. And John McCain is dead. I think the number of times we’ve been wrong in this campaign is far greater than the number of times we’ve been right.

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike was also on hand, though, to defend the media. When host Howard Kurtz asked if “the media went totally haywire over a couple of gutter balls and we sort of traffic in this world of symbolism,” Zernike said the candidates “protest too much,” arguing that they were “sort of riding on this train”; as evidence, she pointed out that John and Elizabeth Edwards gave an interview to People magazine.

From ‘us’ to us

Another matter is whether voters have actually bought the idea that Barack Obama is some sort of elitist. According to the New York Times (5/1/08), the Republican plan to brand Obama as an out-of-touch elitist did not appear to be working, since “he is not viewed that way by most Americans. Nearly two-thirds of registered voters said they believed he shared their values, about the same number who felt that way about Mr. McCain. (Fifty-eight percent said Mrs. Clinton shared their values.)”

According to the same CBS/New York Times poll (4/25/08-4/29/08), when voters were asked how much the candidates care about “people like you,” Obama did slightly better than McCain—31 percent answering that McCain cared “not much” or “not at all” about people like them, while 25 percent said the same about Obama.

Newsweek (5/5/08) pointed to a Gallup poll that asked if a candidate “looks down upon the average American,” in which 26 percent of respondents attributed that point of view to Obama—just 4 percentage points higher than McCain, and 6 points lower than Hillary Clinton. The magazine also noted that exit polls in Pennsylvania showed Clinton and Obama tied on the question of whether a candidate is “in touch with people like you.”

As Tumulty wrote in her piece scorching Obama over his “bitter” comments (Time, 4/28/08), the media brouhaha didn’t seem to make much of an impression on Pennsylvania voters, where “some of the working-class Democrats in that state said they understood what Obama was trying to say, even if the professional political class didn’t.”