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Obama's Feel-Your-Pain Moment

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By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER -- It's not just about the narrative.

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Of course, relating his personal story in his speech to the Democratic convention tonight and in the weeks ahead will be important -- especially for a new-on-the-scene candidate like Barack Obama. But it is not enough. At their best, conventions manage to braid together the strands of candidate biography and presidential action plan. Bill Clinton succeeded at this at his 1992 convention, presenting himself as a product of a "forgotten middle class" that works hard and plays by the rules, and vowing, "When I am president you will be forgotten no more."

As issues become increasingly complex -- voters can't be expected to parse the technical differences between the candidates' cap-and-trade emissions plans or the distributional effects of their tax cuts -- biography, especially biography laced with conflict and resolution, becomes a proxy for providing assurance that the candidate can be counted on to get it right on the more difficult matters.

Obama's exotic background -- his unique melange of Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii and Harvard -- makes the job of presenting his life story particularly important. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made that point bluntly in an interview with Post reporters and editors Tuesday, comparing Obama to the egghead Adlai Stevenson, who twice failed as the Democrats' nominee.

"With people who have a lot of gifts, it's hard for people to identify with them," Rendell said. "Barack Obama is handsome. He's incredibly bright. He's incredibly well spoken, and he's incredibly successful -- not exactly the easiest guy in the world to identify with."

Obama's strategists acknowledge this phenomenon. "Our candidate is outside of the mold," one senior adviser told me. "There are so many things about our candidate that are different that the challenge that we have is to give people a confidence that despite all these things that feel different, 'Okay, I get what he's about personally' . . . that his family is like every other family that your kids go to school with."

This is necessary but not sufficient, as Obama advisers agree. Obama needs to seem more familiar and approachable to voters, yes, but he also needs to convey -- to use President Clinton's famous phrasing -- that he feels their pain.

"People need to know that the president is awake, gets it, isn't in some cocoon or bubble somewhere," Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland told a group of Post reporters and editors as the convention began.

Obama, said his fellow Illinois senator, Dick Durbin, needs to get "as close to street level as possible. Really identify with these people."

Obama's difficulty on that question is underlined by his faltering performance on the classic poll question about which candidate better understands the problems of people like you.

The latest Post-ABC News poll shows that the number of voters who favor Obama over John McCain on that score has actually fallen since March. Then, 55 percent of registered voters gave Obama credit for understanding them, compared with 29 percent for McCain. Now, the gap has narrowed, with Obama at 49 percent to McCain's 36 percent.

No wonder the Obama campaign seized so eagerly on McCain's house gaffe.

But Obama needs to find a way to convey this sense of identification with voters in a way that does not seem phony.

Rendell, emphasizing the need for Obama to hammer home his economic message, said voters are "waiting to see that he's angry about that stuff, too. Not just that he thinks it's wrong intellectually -- that he's angry."

But for all the talk this week about Obama's need to portray himself as a fighter -- a fighter for the middle class and a fighter against McCain -- it's not clear to me that this is a natural fit for Obama.

He's been trying it on recently, and it can seem as forced as Al Gore in earth tones. Consider Obama the other day on unequal pay for women: "I get mad. I get frustrated. . . . The thought of it makes my blood boil." Coming from Obama, it sounded like more of a slow simmer.

Obama's task is to convince voters that he understands them, but without leading them to question whether he knows himself.

marcusr@washpost.com

Read more from Ruth Marcus at washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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