POLITICO; by Carrie Budoff Brown; 4/13/08
Barack Obama’s remarks on small town America were an off-key note from a politician who has rocketed to the top by being brilliantly on-key.
At the same time, the comments were not a total departure: On the campaign trail, Obama can reveal moments of aloofness or tone deaf reactions that belie his image as the epitome of polished.
At 46, Obama carries a political persona that draws on many origins. He is the son of a single mother who grew up middle class in Hawaii and worked as a community organizer in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. But he is also the Harvard Law Review president who knows well — occasionally too well — that he is smart and successful.
Part of the appeal to many Democrats is an intellect that allows him to discuss difficult issues with sophistication and candor, as he did in Philadelphia with his speech on race. But his remarks at a private San Francisco fundraiser amplified the flip side of his personal manner, a sort of freestyle rhetorical approach sometimes better suited for a dorm room bull session.
Obama fielded almost identical questions from the donors in San Francisco as he does from voters across the country. Yet his answers in the more intimate — and in his view, off the record — gathering were a bit more revealing.
Asked what he would seek in a running mate, Obama said despite the conventional wisdom, he wouldn’t need somebody with military expertise because “foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Sen. Clinton or Sen. McCain.”
And then there was the question from donors who asked what they could expect in Pennsylvania when they traveled there to campaign for him. They had to work to do, Obama responded, because voters in a lot of the communities feel beaten down by job losses and betrayed by their government.
“It’s not surprising then 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,” Obama said.
The remarks, recorded at the Sunday fundraiser by a Huffington Post blogger and published Friday, opened a fresh round of scrutiny about Obama’s ability to connect with blue-collar workers.
“What I found to be most revealing was that these remarks were made several thousand miles from us, at a very expensive fundraising campaign event in a very upscale location where he did not think any of us were going to hear what he would say,” said Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed, a Clinton supporter. “It invites the question of what else does this candidate think about all the different people who make up our redder, diverse nation.”
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, pointed to the senator’s expressions of regret for the way he phrased his remarks.
“Did he choose his words poorly? Yes,” Axelrod said. “Does it reflect something larger? Absolutely not. Those who are trying to portray it that way are disingenuous.”
Indeed, he has won liberal states and conservative states, wealthy states and poor states. And he has been masterful at attracting millions of new voters and donors to the Democratic Party, and building fierce loyalty within his campaign operation and among his legions of supporters with a message of bridging racial, religious and cultural divides.
But for all of the pitch-perfect performances over the past 15 months, Obama can come across as detached at moments when he should identify, as scolding when he should allow incidents to roll off his back, as misunderstood when he says one thing but means another.
At a New Hampshire roundtable in December, Obama betrayed little emotion as one participant sobbed while describing her situation: She lost her job on her 65th birthday, struggles to afford her $2,900 monthly prescription drug costs, and lives in 30-year-old trailer where the thermostat is set at 64 degrees.
At the same event, he later mentioned how the success of his book had allowed him to buy a big house. He was making a point about inequities in the tax system, but the story felt misplaced in the midst of such dire tales.
Just before the Iowa caucus, Obama began telling voters about a phone conversation with his wife, who said this year was the right time to run for president because they are “still almost normal.” She meant that before her husband became a U.S. senator and received a $1.9 million book advance, they juggled school loans, grocery shopping and mortgage payments like other middle-class families.
“Michelle’s point was, in eight years from now, 10 years from now, we may still be nice people, but we may be in this orbit where we just don’t remember, we don’t hear people’s voices anymore,” Obama explained at the time.
Two women in the Sioux City audience were not impressed.
“That was a mistake,” said Lindsay Pelchat, 30. “That was a big mistake.”
“Don’t ever forget where you come from,” her friend, Paula Yasat, 53, piped in.
“Does that mean in the next election he’s already going to start losing sight of the middle class?” Pelchat asked.
The women approached Obama afterward to tell him they remained undecided.
“What do I need to do?” Obama asked, almost disbelieving. “You’re really making us work.”
At a February town hall meeting in Racine, Wis., Obama showed little patience for a rowdy crowd. When one young man asked for his views on Native American rights and “people getting screwed” by NAFTA, Obama took a sharp tone.
“I’m sorry, young man, you have a series of different questions and why don’t you ask your questions in a more polite fashion,” Obama said.
An aide later said that Obama, who was on his last stop before a trip home to Chicago, appeared irritated because was anxious to see his family.
Reacting in mid-February to Clinton’s charges that he was all talk, Obama offered a confident self-assessment, one that might sound arrogant to some. “It’s true I give a good speech. What can I do? Nothing wrong with that.”
Obama infuriated supporters of former Sen. John Edwards by continuing to use him as a punch line on the stump even after he left the race. And New York magazine reported last month that Obama blew the endorsement, in part, because he came across as “glib and aloof” during a phone conversation on the day that Edwards dropped out.
Cass R. Sunstein, a former colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago law school, said the characterizations by Obama opponents of him as elitist is “laughable,” and the charge of him as condescending “aren’t features of his personality.”
But he allowed that Obama, like anybody under a nearly 24-hour-a-day microscope, can slip up.
“He is a real person,” Sunstein said. “He is not programmed in the way that some political candidates have been in the past. The moment-by-moment scrutiny is surely less familiar for him than it has been for people who have been facing this kind of scrutiny for a longer time.”