8/01/2008

The Myth of Arrogance

One of the more interesting criticisms of Barack Obama that has surfaced over the past few weeks is that he is both arrogant and presumptuous. This line of attack dovetails from the inexperienced and elitist charges that have dogged his campaign since he first entered the race. Of course, Obama has helped create the narrative of elitism by making ill-advised remarks about "bitter" voters in rural areas and Michelle Obama's awkward comment about being proud of the United States for the first time in her adult life. This narrative has really hindered Obama with rural voters, Whites, seniors, and blue-collar voters and has provided the main rationale for Hillary Clinton to be selected as his vice president.

John McCain is right to try and drive a wedge between Obama and the constituencies listed above because that's politically potent. Voters have a long list of qualities they like in a future president, but one of them that is difficult to quantify is the empathy factor. Does this politician understand people like me? Can this politician relate to me? Does this politician seem genuinely interested in the concerns of people like me? Given Obama's gaffes, it is easy to see why he is having a bit of trouble with the voters listed above. But no politician can ever please all voters all the time. After all, John McCain is not immune to this inability to make inroads with certain segments of the electorate either, as his struggles with Black voters, young voters, and urban voters suggest.

However, Barack Obama could easily parry these accusations of arrogance. It's an empty line of attack that opens politicians up to allegations of hypocrisy and phony outrage. The problem for Obama, however, is that he must not be afraid to get a bit muddy because taking the high road and trying to coast to victory this November would be a disaster.

Every politician who runs for President is arrogant on at least some level. They are almost always rich. They graduated from Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale. They are elitists. They love the media spotlight. And even when they complain about the media, they are usually happy to receive airtime. And because of the office for which they are running (the presidency), they must inherently believe that they are better than any other person in the United States in terms of leadership, intelligence, vision, and political ideology.

That's arrogance. But it's also necessary. Imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate admitted that his rival was more knowledgeable about Issue X than he was. That rival would immediately turn that into a campaign ad that would bury the humble candidate alive. How would fundraisers and donors feel if their candidate spent more time talking about his own shortcomings than his actual strengths? ("Please donate $50 so you can help this mediocre candidate win even though he doesn't deserve it!") Would voters really be inclined to support someone who didn't feel confident about his own chances of victory? ("I don't think I'm going to win, but I want you to vote for me anyway!")

That's not how politics works. Yes, Barack Obama was arrogant in his use of a mock presidential seal at a campaign event earlier this summer. But John McCain was even more arrogant in his accusing Barack Obama of wanting to lose a war before losing an election. The difference, of course, is that the Obama campaign is not making arrogance a central issue of this campaign. However, the McCain campaign is.

Obama has tried to deal with these attacks dismissively. He mocks the attacks. He laughs them off by saying "He knows better." He portrays the attacks as undignified. "That's beneath John McCain." He's "disappointed" in the unfortunate remarks. He is leaving it up to the voters to see these attacks for what they are--stupid.

The problem, however, is that the people who know these attacks are stupid are already in Obama's corner and they aren't leaving him. There are a lot of other voters out there, however, who might consider voting for Obama, but won't because these attacks have resonance. To these voters, if Obama doesn't fight back or denounce them, the attacks must be true. And by not fighting back, that reinforces Obama's perceived weakness in terms of being seen as a strong leader or commander-in-chief. And if he's not willing to stand up for himself, how can voters trust that he will stand up for America?

But is it in Obama's nature to confront these attacks head on? Is his professorial approach to political communication really going to help bring these new potential voters on board? One of Hillary Clinton's enduring qualities was her tenacity. She knew she would get beat up in her campaign, but the difference between her and Obama is that even though she got beat up, she decided she might as well fight.

This is not to say that Barack Obama has to engage in kneecap politics by spreading rumors or dredging up old scandals related to McCain. However, it would be in his best interest to show a little more heart and be a little less cerebral when it comes to mixing it up with McCain. Children get angry when other children talk bad about their mother. Men get angry when someone badmouths their family. People take great offense to others who attack their hometown. Yes, Obama may have offended some of these voters with his "bitter" remarks this spring. But he has a chance to repair some of the damage by showing that he too knows how to stand up for himself and fight.

As the overall political landscape suggests right now in terms of polls, fundraising, the national mood, and right track/wrong track sentiment, John McCain cannot win this election. Barack Obama, however, can lose it. Obama would be wise to learn from the failed candidacies of John Kerry and Al Gore and not be afraid to take it to his rivals with firmness, not disdain.

5 comment(s):

Thomas said...

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday. He is a big Obama supporter. He said John McCain is arrogant too. I said, "It is probably because he was a fighter pilot."

Having never been a fighter pilot but having been a law student, I know that that can have an affect on a person's ego too. What I don't know is if law school makes you arrogant or if law school attracts arrogant people. My answer is probably a little bit of both.

Barack Obama got into probably the premier law school in the country AND...AND he got elected president of the Harvard Law Review. How a person can walk away from accomplishments like those and not be arrogant, again, I have no answer for that.

McCain and Obama both had experiences when they were young men that often times lead to cockiness. Sometimes we throw away this cockiness as we get older. And sometimes people choose to hold onto it. I think we know where Obama and McCain stand on this.

Not that there is anything wrong with this.

Brett said...

I don't doubt that Obama has at the very least considered striking back hard. He's never hesitated to denounce any personal attacks in the past (a legacy of 2004, I would imagine - nobody wants to make the mistake of trying to ignore a damaging slander like John Kerry did for a long time on the Swift Boats attack).

That "black men are after our white women! Get 'em boys!" attitude has always amused me, because it seems so clearly like projection on white men's part - for nigh on 200 years, a white man could more or less rape whatever black woman he wanted in most cases, and particularly if he owned her as a slave.

Black Political Analysis said...

First you are correct to discuss elitism. They are all elites at this level and that's the way it should be. Quite frankly, we don't want mediocre people running for president. Second, very few Americans have a real understanding of politics. Politics is nasty and brutish. Good strategists know when to respond immediately and aggressively and when to take a more measured tone. It's the job of pundits to second guess the candidates, but it's Obama's job to get elected.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

got to be cocky to run for president

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

This whole "arrogant" argument is stupid. I can't believe Democrats allow themselves to be tarred with this label election after election. But shame on the electorate for buying into it. Average Joes who don't know much about the world or the national economy simply don't become President. And they shouldn't.

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Brett,

I think the linking Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton to Obama was an attempt to attack him for being vacuous. Trying to put this in the same category as the ad that ran against Harold Ford in 2006 is a bit of a stretch. But then again, the Christian right was railing against Sponge Bob Squarepants for being a possible homosexual, so I guess both sides are prone to stupidity in this regard.

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Dr. King,

That's just it. Obama's job is to get elected, just like it's McCain's job to do the same thing. Nice guys rarely finish first in politics. McCain has talked about running a positive campaign, but they've been negative. And Obama is talking about changing the tone in Washington, but he isn't. Why don't politicians just drop all their pretense and simply do what they need to do to get elected. Voters care more about seeing their ideas pursued in the White House than they do one politician's political integrity.

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Torrance,

Yes. And someone needs to remind everyone of this.

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