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Sticking Points for Obama

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 9, 2008

Barack Obama -- the charismatic, weakened, patronizing, soaring, prickly, historic, inevitable nominee of the Democratic Party -- is now left with two related problems.

First, Obama's own missteps, amplified by Hillary Clinton's negativity, have defined a narrative likely to follow him until Election Day.

In politics, a narrative -- the widely held, sometimes unfair shorthand that marks a candidate -- is difficult to shift. For Dan Quayle, it was fresh-faced intellectual vacuity. For John Kerry, it was a combination of hauteur and inconstancy.

The Obama narrative is intellectual and ideological (not social) elitism. Humble roots have never been a guarantee of intellectual humility, especially when a mind comes to flower at Columbia and Harvard. Obama's dismissal of small-town views and values as "bitterness," "fear" and "anger" -- his dismissal of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a relic of an angry generation -- comes across as, well, dismissive. His first instinct -- the academic instinct -- is to explain and analyze, which is impressive to political writers who share that particular vocation. But this approach always places the explainer in a position of superiority. The arrogance of the aristocrat is nothing compared to the arrogance of the academic.

The issue of the lapel flag pin is a good illustration. Obama's explanation for its absence -- that it had become a "substitute" for "true patriotism" in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- is perfectly rational. For a professor at the University of Chicago. Members of the knowledge class generally find his stand against sartorial symbolism to be subtle, even courageous. Most Americans, I'm willing to bet, will find it incomprehensible after 20 additional explanations, which are bound to be required. A president is expected to be a patriotic symbol himself, not the arbiter of patriotic symbols. He is supposed to be the face-painted superfan at every home game; to wear red, white and blue boxers on special marital occasions; to get misty-eyed during the most obscure patriotic hymns.

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic -- a foolish, unfair, destructive charge -- but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

And this has led, in part, to a second problem -- Obama's disconnect with white religious voters (African American religious voters are overwhelmingly supportive). He lost the white Protestant vote by 26 points in the Indiana primary and by 37 points in North Carolina. He lost the white Catholic vote by 26 points in Indiana and 17 points in North Carolina. Among Catholics in particular, this represents an improvement over Obama's dismal results in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But this religion gap remains a general election challenge.

It is also a striking reversal of fortunes. Obama is easily the most religiously fluent and informed Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. But, over time, Obama has assumed a much more familiar Democratic electoral profile -- the candidate of the young, the educated and the secular (he has consistently won religiously nonaligned voters), who also gets nearly universal support from African Americans. He increasingly resembles Bill Bradley or Gary Hart -- a candidate of new liberalism -- with this additional element of black enthusiasm.

There are many possible reasons for the opening of a religion gap, in addition to Obama's off-putting aura of superiority. Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution suggests that Catholics may be more attracted to bread-and-butter issues than elevated calls for change; more likely to be political "regulars" instead of reformers; more apt to identify age with leadership. Both white Catholics and white Protestants seem to have been disturbed by the Rev. Wright's vigorous reassertion of black liberation theology -- not because it is black, but because it is radical. And at least some Americans are concerned by the unreconstructed liberalism -- on abortion and other issues -- beneath Obama's post-partisan approach.

Going forward, the main political question is this: Can John McCain turn this disaffection into Republican votes? Given his instinctual populism, policy moderation and moving life story, perhaps he is the only Republican who could. Given the distemper of the country, the public preference for Democrats on nearly every policy issue and the destruction of the Republican brand among the young, perhaps no Republican could.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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