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    A working-class hero is something to be

    Ann Althouse cites this piece by John B. Judis in TNR, which in turn takes the writer of this WaPo article to task for getting his facts about President Obama wrong. What I find really interesting is the way Judis catalogues the numerous reasons to believe that Obama grew up with a sense of entitlement and flitted from occupation to occupation in exactly the way shallow people obsessed with power and prestige do…then, out of nowhere, finishes like this:

    Barack Obama is, by any fair measure, a great American, and he could turn out to be a great president. But he is not yet a great politician. He has not been able to transcend the political limits of his own social background. And that has been one of his problems as he attempts to extricate America from the mess he inherited.

    But the limits aren’t just political; they’re experiential as well. Judis is at pains to argue that Obama “clearly was not obsessed with making money, but with performing a public service,” but he (Judis) seems to have no comprehension whatever of the degree to which a lot of actual working-class people tend to perceive “public service” positions like his (Obama’s) as out-of-touch condescension, geared less toward helping the disadvantaged to clear a path toward achieving their own goals than toward making the public servant feel good about his own magnanimity. It’s the modern version of the manor-house-ladies-visiting-food-and-moral-hectoring-on-the-cottage-dwellers routine.

    Perhaps Obama did doubt that he was “accomplishing much” as a community organizer, in the sense of serving people in need. Or perhaps, like seemingly thousands of other Ivy grads each year, he decided that what he was doing wasn’t fast-track enough and, as a humanities/social-science major, that his best shot at giving himself a grad-degree boost was law school. And when I say “fast-track,” I’m not just talking about money; power, influence, and image figure into a lot of people’s calculations of self-worth as much as money does. (Judis does recognize that.) New York is chock-a-block with cutthroat lawyers who imagine they’re more moral and civic-minded than the bankers downtown—just because, as nearly as I’ve ever been able to tell, they don’t work for banks.

    There are two major problems in perceiving these things clearly, I think. One is that there’s a serious class divide in America based on expectations. Obama grew up, it appears, among people who saw going to a hoity-toity college and then bossing people around for a living as the natural progression of things. Working-class people do not. (I say this as the son of a steelworker and a high-school dropout who later got a GED and a data-operations certification. My parents and their friends were optimistic and happy, but the idea of wanting to devote your working life to lording it over people would have been very foreign to them.) I’m sure Obama had times when he had to struggle—difficult exams and all that—but he was following the same path as his peers, and one that his elders were presumably easing him along. That doesn’t diminish his actual accomplishments, but I suspect it does make it pretty much impossible for him to imagine what life is like for people who have succeeded by working their way up.

    The other problem is that Obama has a fundamentally performative personality, as we would have put it back when I was majoring in comparative literature. Oratory suits him. Earthy spontaneity doesn’t suit him, and it shows. Perhaps that means he’s uncomfortable in his own skin as a human being, or perhaps it means that he’s growing into himself as a politician. My sense is that, like a lot of people who’ve been able to dodge failure their entire adult lives, he’s skittish about doing anything obviously risky, and it’s that skittishness that makes him seem withdrawn. (Say what you will about W’s plummy background—by his own estimation, he’d crashed and burned as an alcoholic and sinner, and he’d gained in gravitas by pushing through that.)

    I very frequently agree with Althouse, but when she says of Obama’s disconnect with the middle-class, “[I]t is a struggle to figure this out when you are getting your facts so wrong,” I think she’s a little off the point. Background matters, but sensibility matters more. I knew I was going to live in New York from the time I was a small boy. It never occurred to me in high school that I wouldn’t be applying to Ivies like my more comfortably-off friends. (I have my parents to thank for that, BTW. They would have been perfectly justified in informing me that it was my responsibility to work my way through college. Instead, they took out parent loans so I could spend four years daydreaming about Japanese literature for a Penn degree.) I go back to my hometown, and much as I love spending time with my parents and other relatives, I’m an outsider there.

    In a way, it breaks my heart. We all want to feel close to our origins, and I’m far more distant from mine than the two-hour drive might suggest. In another way, though, this is the richness of America: you the individual do not have to be what others assume you were born to be. Though I won’t pretend I don’t like money, I don’t value the way I live because I make more than my father does; I value it because it suits my personality. Happily, I’m not a politician, so I don’t have to go back to Allentown and pretend unconvincingly to be sunk in and at home there. If President Obama wants to succeed more with regular folks, maybe he could stop trying to act like one of them (seriously, man—no…just, no) and be frank about being an outsider and politician. If he adopted the posture of a public servant who wanted to know their reality, and then started really listening to them tell him about it, he might realize that Washington knows too little about it to micromanage it. And then it would matter a lot less whether So-and-so at the WaPo got the chronology of his life story straight.

    Added on 7 February: Thanks to Eric for the link; while I’m sorry to have gotten him worked into a froth, the post that resulted is a good one as always. There’s one statement Eric made that, while perfectly accurate, might benefit from some elaboration:

    Sean sees Obama as an insecure poseur, and thinks that he should try being honest about his background.

    I think one of the big problems is the labels themselves. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Obama describe himself as explicitly “working-class,” and I don’t have the two books of his I forced myself to read (see? I’m a true child of the working class living a life of struggle!) in front of me, but I don’t remember that being the tack taken there, either. The media like to stress the “humbleness” of his beginnings, but there are plenty of anonymous solidly middle-class folks, too.

    The point I was trying to make was more that Obama depicts his life as one of overcoming obstacles, and in the sense that we usually mean it when talking about a politician’s life story, I don’t think that’s really true. Obama’s not from an insider family the way, say, Harold Ford, Jr., is, but he had a lot more than his own determination and our open society helping him on the way from Punahoe to Occidental to Columbia to Harvard. His family was full of educated people who knew the system.

    All of which is to say, I don’t think that President Obama is being dishonest in the sense of covering things up. I just think that his background says less, in and of itself, about how much grit and determination he needed to get where he is than the media and the rest of his claque seem to think.

    13 Responses to “A working-class hero is something to be”

    1. Leslie says:

      Obama is a man without a country, it seems to me. A small man with a big voice who has never lived like folks on the mainland. He has yet to act like a president or even a senator but, instead, as activist in chief. I agree with Charles Krauhammer here; I think Obama’s muddled, utopian philosophy is a product of academe. His comment about clinging to guns and religion would be right at home in the cultural studies journals I edited for eight years at Duke Press. Utterly self-absorbed and patronizing about the very folks they claim to care about, these writers, like Obama, do not think Americans are OK as they are but, rather, that they need to be fixed—their thinking completely changed—so that no one need worry about Kansas anymore.

    2. Sarah says:

      the thing about breaking your heart… I do that everytime I go to Portugal. It’s like there’s another me who is still there and living happilly, only it’s not really me (and probably couldn’t be.) And completely understand the belonging by something other than birth. (Though would like to point out when I first saw NYC 29 years ago I too said “I’m going to live here.” Unfortunately totally worth it husband doesn’t like large cities. Still totally worth it. :) ) And yes, it’s the best thing about being an American in the 21st century that I can be who I am, not who I was born to be.

      On Obama — I think he suffers from something I see in new writers who think that everyone OF COURSE wants to be like them and think as they do, and if they don’t, then they’re uninformed or somehow defective. Like… they write a plumber who feels inferior to computer nerds or writers. (rolls eyes.) I was blessed to grow up in a small village (G-d, how Miss Marple of me!) so I knew enough people who worked with their hands to know a lot of them were perfectly competent professionals in their own right, happy and proud and weren’t “intelectuals manque”. Anyway, I think he has not a clue what the common man thinks or feels. And his ideas are ALL what my literature professors believed.

    3. Leslie says:

      Sarah—literature, health policy, social history, cultural studies, etc. Your “ALL” is so correct from my end, the editing. (At the Press, when people could not understand why our books and journals did not sell at the local “alternative” bookstore, I would ask them: so, which ones have you bought lately?) What I continue to find to be so pathetically ironic is that these writers are part of the educated class, yet they haven’t a clue as to what makes this the New World and want so desperately to go back in time to the Old World, despite its obvious unraveling.

      By the way, I’ve read your work on this post, and may I also say that it’s really good. And how nice that technology enables me to notice—and note—on that!

    4. Sean says:

      Leslie, you’re right: it’s like having Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as president, huh?

    5. Sean says:

      And both Sarah and Leslie, President Obama’s problem finding a stable identity is shared by a lot of children of bi-national families who grow up in several different countries, I think. At least, that seemed to be the case among those I met in Tokyo. (A lot of people with that background end up going into foreign service or international business and hopping the globe for most of their lives.) You can’t blame them for feeling adrift for a while, especially when, as in Obama’s case, the American and Kenyan heritage (and later Indonesian upbringing for a time) are so at odds with each other in terms of what life’s supposed to be like. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask of the President of the United States that he ultimately decide to come down firmly on the side of the values and interests of this country. I’m not sure he has. The idea that he’s a closet conservative Muslim sounds like nonsense to me, but the idea that he glorifies post-War EU-style social democracy makes very much sense indeed.

    6. Donna B. says:

      Were Obama not our President, I’d feel quite sorry for him. I imagine that would anger him. He’s a little boy, lost.

    7. Sean says:

      He seems to feel sorry for plenty of people who don’t necessarily need it, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t return the favor, Donna. (BTW, I never got a chance to post about it, but I thought your post about whether foreigners should endorse candidates for office here was interesting. Not exactly this topic, but related in the sense that Obama’s foreign orientation is an issue. Personally, I’m less bothered by speeches, which are public, than by funding, which may not be. But that’s a topic for another day.)

    8. Sarah says:


      As you know I understand the “children of binational families” all too well, though in my case it could be argued my children are solidly American and my own national confusion is self inflicted. My mom chides me for the perceived confusion in my children often enough. “Those poor boys don’t belong anywhere.” I don’t see it that way. OTOH I belong to a sub group, sf/f writers who DO NOT belong anywhere. Heck, sf/f fans tend to be their family’s tragedy, if that makes sense. We’re just odd people.

      In that sense, if Alvin Toffler was right — and I have no reason to think he was not — as identities and classes continue to splinter, we’re going to have a lot more of these.

      Still on the other hand — shush, I DO write science fiction and fantasy! I’m allowed multiple hands — I see no conflict PERSONALY between this fragmentation and an American identity. I think — obviously — Americans are possibly the most suited modern society to allowing this sort of fragmentation to function.

      Still (on the fourth hand) the more fragmented society becomes, the more one seems to have a new-romantic fascination with societies that Americans perceive as simpler and more cohesive than the US’s. (The downside of that conformity never being fully understood. Unless you grow up in it as a native, and even then you can romanticize it a posteriory as so many of my fellow expatriates do.) So it makes makes perfect sense for Obama to have an almost-crush on Indonesia and Kenya, complicated in the case of Kenya by the whole romanticization of Africa thing.

      What can we do? I don’t know. Is it too late to hope he learns to know himself and compensate for these subconscious biases? Or is asking self-awareness of a politican too tall an order?

    9. Joe G. says:

      Linked over from Classical Values. Appreciate your thoughts.

      Oh, to be only a two-hour drive from my hometown! Would take me all day, and $400.

      For those of us who cannot so easily, I hope you return frequently and describe the distance.

    10. Sean says:

      Thanks, Joe. I spent eleven years living in Tokyo, which of course is just a little farther from Allentown, PA, than New York is, so I can empathize. And yes, now that I’m back in the States, I visit my family once every month and a half or so, not once a year as I used to. :)

    11. Eric Scheie says:

      Thanks Sean. I need to get “worked into a froth” more often, for just as it improves a cappuccino or a beer, a good froth does wonders for the quality of life!


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    12. Sean says:

      Eric, yes, nothing like letting off steam (or just bubbles).

      Sarah, I think your boys may be a slightly different case—not just because of the sci-fi-parents thing, but also because of their having been reared American, not half-and-half. (I mean, do they consider themselves Portuguese nationals in some way?) The people I was describing are, for example, like a woman I know whose father is Chinese (as in, from China) and whose mother is Japanese. She herself was brought up partially in Tokyo but educated mostly in the States, including high school and college. She’s aware that the Japanese and Chinese don’t consider her one of them, but she doesn’t feel entirely like an American, either, and I find it hard to blame her, really.

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