It’s a fact: Obama respects working class people

In a new Gallup poll, 25% of respondents say that Barack Obama looks down on working class Americans.

Actually that result isn’t so bad. John McCain scored 24%, and Hillary Clinton “won” this contest with a decisive 32%.

Nonetheless, the charge seems to be hurting Obama in the Democratic nomination process. For example, read Noam Scheiber‘s interesting analysis of suburban Philadelphia from a socio-economic perspective. Here’s a soundbite:

The biggest reason Obama didn’t perform as well as we’d have expected in the affluent, educated, politically-moderate Philadelphia suburbs is that they’re not nearly as affluent and educated as we’d assumed.

Both McCain and Clinton have derided Obama as “elitist”. Related insults include “arrogant” and “out of touch”.

In response to Obama’s detractors, I’d like to offer an excerpt from Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. Note:  Obama was being raised by his (white) grandparents during the time he describes here.

They had sold the big, rambling house near the university and now rented a small, two-bedroom apartment …. Gramps had left the furniture business to become a life insurance agent, but as he was unable to convince himself that people needed what he was selling and was sensitive to rejection, the work went badly. Every Sunday night, I would watch him grow more and more irritable as he gathered his briefcase and set up a TV tray in front of his chair, following the lead of every possible distraction, until finally he would chase us out of the living room and try to schedule appointments with prospective clients over the phone. Sometimes I would tiptoe into the kitchen for a soda, and I could hear the desperation creeping out of his voice, the stretch of silence that followed when the people on the other end explained why Thursday wasn’t good and Tuesday not much better, and then Gramps’s heavy sigh after he had hung up the phone, his hands fumbling through the files in his lap like those of a cardplayer who’s deep in the hole.
 

Eventually, a few people would relent, the pain would pass, and Gramps would wander into my room to tell me stories of his youth or the new joke he had read in Reader’s Digest. If his calls had gone especially well that night, he might discuss with me some scheme he still harbored — the book of poems he had started to write, the sketch that would soon bloom into a painting, the floor plans for his ideal house, complete with push-button conveniences and terraced landscaping. I saw that the plans grew bolder the further they receded from possibility, but in them I recognized some of his old enthusiasm, and I would usually try to think up encouraging questions that might sustain his good mood. Then, somewhere in the middle of his presentation, we would both notice Toot [Barack’s grandmother] standing in the hall outside my room, her head tilted in accusation.

“What do you want, Madelyn?”

“Are you finished with your calls, dear?”

Yes, Madelyn. I’m finished with my calls. It’s ten o’clock at night!”

“There’s no need to holler, Stanley. I just wanted to know if I could go into the kitchen.”

“I’m not hollering! Jesus H. Christ, I don’t understand why—”  But before he could finish, Toot would have retreated into their bedroom, and Gramps would leave my room with a look of dejection and rage.

Such exchanges became familiar to me, for my grandparents’ arguments followed a well-worn groove, a groove that originated in the rarely mentioned fact that Toot earned more money than Gramps. She had proved to be a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank, and although Gramps liked to say that he always encouraged her in her career, her job had become a source of delicacy and bitterness between them as his commissions paid fewer and fewer of the family’s bills.

Not that Toot had anticipated her success. Without a college education, she had started out as a secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth. But she had a quick mind and sound judgment, and the capacity for sustained work. Slowly she had risen, playing by the rules, until she reached the threshold where competence didn’t suffice. There she would stay for twenty years, with scarcely a vacation, watching as her male counterparts kept moving up the corporate ladder, playing a bit loose with information passed on between the ninth hole and the ride to the clubhouse, becoming wealthy men.

More than once, my mother would tell Toot that the bank shouldn’t get away with such blatant sexism. But Toot would just pooh-pooh my mother’s remarks, saying that everybody could find a reason to complain about something. Toot didn’t complain. Every morning, she woke up at five A.M. and changed from the frowsy muu-muus she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps. Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else.

From time to time, she would admit a grudging pride in her work and took pleasure in telling us the inside story behind the local financial news. When I got older, though, she would confide in me that she had never stopped dreaming of a house with a white picket fence, days spent baking or playing bridge or volunteering at the local library. I was surprised by this admission, for she rarely mentioned hopes or regrets. It may or may not have been true that she would have preferred the alternative history she imagined for herself, but I came to understand that her career spanned a time when the work of a wife outside the home was nothing to brag about, for her or for Gramps ….

(pp. 55-57)

I could have chosen plenty of other excerpts that show the same characteristics as this one:  Obama’s close observation of ordinary people going about their everyday lives, described from a sympathetic viewpoint. There’s nothing elitist here, nothing arrogant, nothing out of touch. All of those charges have been levelled cynically at Obama for the sake of political advantage.

This is what pisses me off about the “controversies” which were the primary focus of the ABC debate in Pennsylvania. Journalists used to pride themselves at digging beneath politicians’ posturing to get at the hard facts. Formerly prestigious institutions have now sunk to the lowest common denominator — what used to be called “tabloid journalism” — in which the goal is to be as sensational as possible.

Getting at truth is no longer the goal; sensationalism is the goal.

And so ABC piles on:  Clinton smears Obama, McCain smears Obama, and ABC’s response is, Hey, this is pretty juicy, we want in on that action!

It’s a fact:  Obama respects working class people. The 25% of Americans who think otherwise are mistaken.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Random
    Apr 25, 2008 @ 03:16:29

    I’m sure you’re expecting me to say something at this point:-)…

    That article doesn’t prove Obama respects working class people, it proves he respects his grandparents (oh, it also proves he has a quite beautiful command of the English language, but we sort of knew that already), not to mention that most people would regard vice-president of a bank as middle class at the very least anyway.

    Needless to say, I stand by my contention that something said privately before a sympathetic audience in a forum closed to the media is likely to be more revealing of his actual views than a book written for public consumption that is designed to create a positive impression of a campaigning politician. YMMV, of course. And drawing attention to a candidates’ actual words is not a smear, unlikely for example deliberately and with malica aforethought inverting the meaning of a candidate’s actual words for naked partisan advantage.

    BTW the detailed breakdowns of the Pennsylvania voting revealed just how much damage Obama’s words are doing – in Ohio, Hillary won the votes of people who go to church weekly (the “clinging to God” crowd, I suppose) by just 4%, in Pennsylvania she won them by 16%. This is I believe one of the largest swings in any category (though I haven’t checked all the breakdowns). Obama has a problem and it’s self-inflicted, not the doing of Hillary or McCain or ABC.

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 15:25:26

    That article doesn’t prove Obama respects working class people, it proves he respects his grandparents.

    I had anticipated that objection, but I chose this excerpt anyway because it is explicitly about work. There are lots of comparable excerpts that aren’t about Obama’s grandparents.

    This excerpt makes my point very well, your quibble notwithstanding. There are four details of note:

    (1) His grandparents’ move from a rambling house to a two-bedroom apartment.
    (2) Gramps’s psychological discomfort and lack of success in his job.
    (3) The tension generated in the marriage because “Toot” was earning more money than Gramps.
    (4) Toot’s failure to receive promotions beyond a certain level, which she attributed to sexual discrimination.

    Any working class person can look at that list and see themselves in it. Obama clearly understands and sympathizes with the plight of working class folks, scrabbling to get by from month to month.

    … not to mention that most people would regard vice-president of a bank as middle class at the very least anyway.

    I suppose it depends on how wealthy the bank was (remembering that this was 3 decades or so ago, when banks weren’t making the obscene profits they do today). And it depends on whether “vice-president” was a largely ceremonial title, or whether it really meant something.

    It’s clear that “Toot” felt she was being passed over for the jobs that made her male colleagues wealthy. And note that they continued to live in a two-bedroom apartment, and there continued to be tension over money.

    Something said privately before a sympathetic audience in a forum closed to the media is likely to be more revealing of his actual views than a book written for public consumption that is designed to create a positive impression of a campaigning politician.

    Dreams from My Father was published long before Obama started to campaign for President: I think it was first published in 1994. He did run for the Illinois legislature the following year, so maybe he was looking that far ahead — I don’t know. However, he was specifically asked to write it after he became the first African-American head of the Harvard Law Journal. So I’m not convinced it was written as a vehicle to further his political aspirations — unlike The Audacity of Hope.

    That’s specifically why I read this book, and not his more recent volume.

    In any event, I think it’s extremely cynical to select one quote from a politician who has been traversing the country for months, delivering speeches day after day after day, debating his opponents, answering questions in the media, and then assume that the quote you’ve selected reveals what is truly in his heart.

    Isn’t it possible that Obama was just exhausted? Isn’t it possible that he just gave a thoughtless answer to a specific question on this occasion? On what grounds do you conclude that this quote uncovers the real Obama, and the rest is just for show? Except that you prefer to put him in a negative light.

    In any event, there’s a compelling answer to your criticism: the aphorism, actions speak louder than words.

    Obama didn’t just write a book in which he articulates deep respect for ordinary people (both in the USA and in Kenya). He also worked for several years as a street organizer in a scuzzy part of Chicago.

    Surely he was there out of compassion for the unemployed and the working poor. Primarily black folk, of course. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t enter into the equation for you. But in my opinion, it “speaks” far more decisively than the San Francisco quote about where Obama’s heart is really at.

    Reply

  3. Random
    Apr 28, 2008 @ 04:30:55

    “Dreams from My Father was published long before Obama started to campaign for President: I think it was first published in 1994. …So I’m not convinced it was written as a vehicle to further his political aspirations — unlike The Audacity of Hope.”

    Which version are you reading? It has been reprinted three times since he first emerged as a political star at the 2004 convention, most recently in 2007 with about 60 or so pages of new material if the page counts on Wikipedia are anything to go by. No mention of other tweaks, but you can’t take it as read that it hasn’t been revised with the presidential campaign in mind if this is the version you’ve got.

    “Isn’t it possible that Obama was just exhausted? Isn’t it possible that he just gave a thoughtless answer to a specific question on this occasion? ”

    It is perfectly possible – though if this is your defence I will repeat a comment I have made with several times before, namely that somebody with a tendency to make foolish errors when tired or under pressure really is not somebody you want as president of the United States.

    “On what grounds do you conclude that this quote uncovers the real Obama, and the rest is just for show?”

    As I’ve said it before, because it was said privately before a sympathetic audience (we only heard about it because one of the donors invited to the fundraiser was also a jounalist – a fact that apparently was not spotted by Obama’s people – who’s professionalism and nose for a good story was stronger than her loyalty to the candidate) where the candidate is more likely to speak the truth.

    “Except that you prefer to put him in a negative light.”

    No I don’t – I would genuinely rather believe that the likely next POTUS is up to the job, even if I disagree with him on policy. I am simply genuinely unsure that this can be said about Obama.

    “Surely he was there out of compassion for the unemployed and the working poor. Primarily black folk, of course. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t enter into the equation for you.”

    Low blow, Stephen. If you’re calling me a racist, please say so in so many words so I know where I stand. FWIW I agree that the work he did in Chicago says a good deal that’s positive about him. I would have thought the somebody who graduated from Harvard as the first black editor of the Law Review could have pretty much walked into any job in private practice and pulled in millions before starting a political career a bit later (somewhat like John Edwards, in fact), rather than doing the relatively low paid community activism he actually did. But it surely isn’t disputed that he has a problem with poorer, rural (and yes, largely white) voters which isn’t just down to their inability to comprehend him?

    Look, I have no problem with Obama being a liberal elitist (it would be hypocritcal of me in any case – the current leader of the British Conservative party, who I will probably be voting for at the next election, is a fifth cousin of the Queen who was educated at Eton and Oxford and is married to the daughter of a Viscount, which frankly makes Obama a rank amateur in the elitism stakes) – though I do have more of a problem with him attempting to obscure this fact.

    It’s just that I suspect, and which I believe the San Francisco remark proves, that Obama’s attitude to poor, working class people is rather similar to the Clinton’s attitude to black people as revealed after South Carolina – namely they like an respect them fine so long as they know their place and are properly grateful for the efforts made by the liberal elite on thier behalf, but if they ever show any opinions of their own and challenge for a place at the top table as of right, then…

    Maybe this is overly harsh and cynical – on balance, I believe that Obama’s attitudes as expressed in San Francisco are the result of ignorance rather than ill-will, so I don’t want to be seen as accusing him of Clintonian levels of cynicism and malice, but it is a negative he needs to work on, and I’m not sure he properly appreciates this yet.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Apr 28, 2008 @ 05:25:32

    Which version are you reading? It has been reprinted three times.

    According to Wiki:

    The book was re-released in 2004 following Senator Obama’s widely admired keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC); the 2004 edition includes a new introduction by Senator Obama as well as his DNC keynote address.

    Note “re-released” — not a second edition. In my version, they’ve replaced the 2004 keynote address with an excerpt from Audacity of Hope. In the 2004 introduction, Obama says that there are a few places where his writing makes him cringe. But he doesn’t say that he tuned up such passages.

    In any event, I keep saying that the book manifests Obama’s respect for working class people throughout. In effect, you’re proposing that he rewrote the book in its entirety.

    If you’re calling me a racist, please say so in so many words.

    No, I’m not implying that you’re a racist. I’m making a serious point.

    It is perfectly obvious that Obama respects working class black people. His work on the streets of Chicago, his description of specific individuals in the black community in Chicago, his discussion of relatives trying to make it in the USA, and his account of his time in Kenya — this data all shows a respect for people who work with their hands and struggle to make ends meet.

    The only possible question is, Does Obama respect working class white people? In other words, maybe Obama is a racist.

    If that’s what you’re asking, the only explicit evidence I can supply is the anecdote about his white grandparents. On the other hand, I see no evidence that Obama is a racist: i.e., that he is sympathetic to ordinary black folks but basically doesn’t give a shit about ordinary white folks.

    This is a bogus charge — his comments in San Francisco don’t overturn all the other data.

    Reply

  5. Random
    Apr 28, 2008 @ 06:11:12

    “In any event, I keep saying that the book manifests Obama’s respect for working class people throughout. In effect, you’re proposing that he rewrote the book in its entirety.”

    Not really, I’m just saying that your assumption that it is a more authentic (for want of a better word) work than “Audacity of Hope” because it was written before obama was a major public figure is not necessarily a safe one to make.

    “No, I’m not implying that you’re a racist. I’m making a serious point.”

    Thank you for that, and your revised comments make the point somewhat clearer.

    “The only possible question is, Does Obama respect working class white people? In other words, maybe Obama is a racist.”

    If this is what you think I am saying, then I haven’t phrased myself clearly enough. I think it is more appropriate to ask does Obama *understand* working class white people? And more to the point, does he understand why they seem to be resistant to the charms of Barack Obama? If the San Francisco remarks have any value at all, it is that the answer appears to be “no” in each case.

    Reply

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