Obama: Elitist, or Just Elite?

US Politics
on 16 Comments

Last Tuesday night on Charlie Rose, Jacob Weisberg offered grim insight re Obama. He said that Hillary had just done to Obama what Republicans do to Democratic presidential candidates in the general election: portrayed him as elitist and out of touch. This was more damaging to Obama than the 3 a.m. phone call or the Rev. Wright stuff, for it undermines his ability to lead ordinary people and is reminiscent of what the Republicans did to John Kerry and Michael Dukakis. Only this time it’s been done by a Democrat in the spring, and the Republicans need only refine the tactic through the fall to knock Obama down.

It’s a good insight, but needs to be countered.

1, It’s not true. Obama is clearly from an elite background but he’s not elitist. This distinction is everything. He has anger and passion in him and has thrived politically by taking on the interests of people far less fortunate than he is. There is a great tradition of this in American politics, JFK, FDR, even RWR, another detached type.

2, To the extent it is true, Obama is changing. As Charles Keating has observed, Obama’s first book was all about blackness and then he condescended to poor whites in his San Francisco speech about "bitter" clingers.  This is not dispositive. Obama is all about growth, development. He comes from a narrow subculture and is bound to expand to a larger definition of American, is doing so by the day. (And as Weisberg noted, he was probably "pandering" to his San Francisco elitist audience that day, saying what they wanted to hear.)

3. Chi– that’s the New Age word for life force. Obama isn’t prone to self-pity. He’s like JFK, FDR and RWR that way, a big spirit, and like all of them, he’s suffered and is tough. (Time to show it!) Kerry and Dukakis were far more limited personalities. George McGovern says the same thing of his appeal vs. Obama’s–I didn’t have his reach.

4. It’s April. There are six months to go. The narratives of Democratic
elections of the recent past won’t be the pattern this time
round. Historians say that one thing history teaches is that historical analogy is never predictive. Obama is protean, Hillary is teaching him how to fight.

16 Responses

  1. Richard Witty
    April 26, 2008, 10:26 am

    I hope that Obama learns how he will persevere, not fight.

    The lessons that the Clintons bring to the table are the wrong lessons.

    To learn from them would be a fundamental compromise.

    Smart, but not wise.

  2. Rowan Berkeley
    April 26, 2008, 10:29 am

    We call this "inverted snobbery," but we tend to assume that the only people who can get away with it are people who genuinely come from, and in most ways remain part of, what we are not ashamed to call "the working class."

    The mere fact that we allow ourselves this term, whereas the US mass media regard the mere term "working class" as "élitist," indicates the fundamentally false nature of the "inverted snobbery" presented by their favoured candidates, which contains nothing a European could regard as genuinely proletarian, at all, but rather a sort of archie bunker know-nothing anti-intellectualism, which itself probably would not appeal to any part of the US public if it wasn't framed in sentimental and grandiose hokum.

  3. the Sword of Gideon
    April 26, 2008, 10:38 am

    Who the hell is RWR?

  4. Jim Haygood
    April 26, 2008, 10:54 am


    Actually, it's all over. Read between the lines of the latest campaign finance data, as reported by the WaPo:

    "Campaign finance records released this week show that a growing number of Clinton's early supporters migrated to Obama in March, after he achieved 11 straight victories. Of those who had previously made maximum contributions to Clinton, 73 wrote their first checks to Obama in March. The reverse was not true: Of those who had made large contributions to Obama last year, none wrote checks to Clinton in March."

    link to tinyurl.com

    At the margin, among the $2,300 contributors, Obama's winning 73 to nothing. Ding dong, the witch is dead; the wicked witch is dead!

    Hillary's reduced to a tiresome, steatopygous sideshow. As Edwin Edwards used to say, nothing's gonna stop Obama now, unless he's caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

    Just as Bill will be best remembered for blustering "I did not have sex with that woman," Hillary ought to be forever tagged with growling "If I'm the president, we will attack Iran." This is taken out of context, of course. But that's precisely what she intended, knowing that the video loop will run over and over, soaking the Lobby's truculent message into the feeble minds of the sheeple.

  5. Jim Haygood
    April 26, 2008, 10:58 am


    "Who the hell is RWR?"

    Ronald Wilson Reagan.

  6. Rowan Berkeley
    April 26, 2008, 11:14 am

    It just struck me that in fact the US public
    probably believes that in some sense they belong to a culture that is, if not "egalitarian," then at least devoted to "anti-elitism." Otherwise, calling someone an "élitist" wouldn't really work. I suppose this is true in England too ; but it is really an extremely stupid and superficial view – of COURSE all actually existing societies are "élitist," not necessarily ideologically, but certainly functionally.

    It's odd that the only people who positively celebrate "élitism," outside of the religious, theocratic subcultures, are the students of the political sociology of Mosca, Pareto, Michels, etc., who are mildly taboo because their ideas were among the bases of Italian Fascism. If I had to suggest a balanced introduction to this subject, I would suggest the works of A. James Gregor, who taught at UC Berkeley for decades, right through the sixties and up to at least the eighties, and survived the most turbulent periods of campus ultra-leftism without losing his scholarly detachment.

  7. the Sword of Gideon
    April 26, 2008, 11:19 am

    Haygood, thanks, should have thought of that myself.

  8. Charles Keating
    April 26, 2008, 12:11 pm

    Obama is certainly more empathetically adaptable than his main competitors. The Hotpoint fridge and equally frozen bomber pilot cannot call upon the better angels of our nature; Obama leaks them, though with a teleprompter. Such as ice is, we must take from the ice tray available. Switching banal metaphors, many will vote for something they know, rather than a realtively open book begging you to turn the page, the one in focus has been so bad, so long.

    If I were a righterous non-state terrorist, I would reel my troops and bombs in for the duration of the USA election.

    If I were a righteous state terrorist (both domestically and across the sea), I would scare the shit out of the potential voters, and beat every war drum in sight "in the best interest of the child."

    Last night I watch Moyers interview Wright. I head most, if not all, of the G-D America speech ending with the chickens coming home to roost. Wright claimed during the speech that he was merely echoing a white ambassador about blowback, though he never used that term. His context was from old Exodus testatment right down to the present. He made sense, in the sense of history not as one would like, but as it has transpired. Nothing new, except he made it clear that his church was looking at events past and future as the saga of his victim people, with a God worth recognizing only if that God was pro-victim, not pro-oppressor. He modeled his view after the Hebrew biblical take regarding the series of oppressors from Egypt until now. It's clear Wright realizes the importance of myth. He never touched on the fringe clue around all peoples' history that the test of virtue is power. Moyers of course didn't pursue such.

    Every group, like Wright's stained glass window mages, colors in its own sun. And visa versa.

    If you want to right the last few centuries of past wrongs, vote for Obama. If you want the status quo, vote for Hillary or McCain. If you have a cynical view the former will merely create new equal wrongs, and the latter, will merely continue, more or less (a catch to consider) the current privileges and expenses.

  9. Jim Haygood
    April 26, 2008, 12:47 pm


    The Nobel Prize-winning South African Jewish author, Nadime Gordimer, is being urged not to attend Jerusalem's International Writers Festival next month, Haaretz reports. Embarassingly, Gordimer once unsuccessfully urged the late Susan Sontag not to visit Jerusalem to receive an award. Now Gordimer is being hoisted on her own exquisitely sharpened petard.

    I'm less interested in whether she goes, than in what she says. Is Gordimer willing to draw the parallels between South African and Israeli apartheid, as her countrymen Bishop Desmond Tutu and UN rapporteur John Dugard have done? Either way, the results should be instructive. Over to you, Nadine!

    link to haaretz.com

  10. Craig
    April 26, 2008, 1:47 pm

    Everyone else is hitting the major points here, so I'll just make a small one: "New Age" does not mean the same thing as "Chinese." "Chi" or "qi" is a Chinese word that means something close to "life force," though I doubt that's really an ideal translation.

  11. MRW.
    April 26, 2008, 1:53 pm

    I want a president who is smarter than me, more resilient under extreme pressure or maybe a steady hate, can think more strategically than I can when tactics wont reveal themselves in the face of eminent danger, and whose insight was shown to be greater than mine when 20/20 hindsight matures three years later.

    Hillary doesn't cut it. I cannot trust my world to anyone who says 'well, if I knew then what I know now'. Especially not, with my limited political access and acumen, I knew then what she did not.

    I am particularly frightened by MSM comments that she is capable of changing her core positions to win the race….and they think that's a good thing. I dont want to spend the next eight years worrying about what my president is going to do unless I monitor him or her every day.

  12. Charles Keating
    April 26, 2008, 6:30 pm

    Hillary is a very common animal, as is McCain. Obama could be more, but the competition is too organically limited to even say that. Hence, Hope is the right word.

  13. Rowan Berkeley
    April 26, 2008, 9:47 pm

    The fact that Obama has residues of decency should not lead to unrealistic hopes about the personal power he would have if he became President. As a matter of fact, excessively progressive Presidents have on occasion been assassinated, because they tried too hard to actually steer the ship of state.

  14. Charles Keating
    April 27, 2008, 11:40 am

    Yep, I take your point. I'm just trying to see a little sliver of light. I know don't bother with Hillary's house, or McCain's. I keep peering at Obama's because there are no other houses in view.

  15. Dingleberry of Gideon
    April 27, 2008, 7:29 pm


    If you had any fucking loyalty to this country you would know right away what RWR stood for.

  16. the Sword of Gideon
    April 28, 2008, 8:23 pm

    Hey what do you want from me, I voted for the guy twice. Nobody ever called him RWR has far as I know

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