ON DEADLINE: Obama's caricature issue

April 14, 2008 9:44:03 AM PDT
Barack Obama's problem is not his character. It's about his caricature. Nearly every candidate suffers - and feeds - a caricature, the wild exaggeration of a person's defects, a grain of truth blown out of proportion.

  • George H.W. Bush was "out of touch."

  • Bill Clinton was "Slick Willy."

  • George W. Bush, a lightweight.

  • Al Gore, a serial exaggerator.

  • John Kerry, a flip-flopper.

    And now this: Obama is an elitist who patronizes working-class voters. Like the rest, Obama's caricature is a gross exaggeration of an actual flaw.

    He is once-in-a-generation political talent who tapped into the public's desire for change and built a stunningly successful campaign around the new communities and new technologies that his rivals fail to grasp. He is charming and smart, and he began his career on the streets of Chicago, helping those with less opportunity than he was given.

    But he also is coolly self-confident and self-impressed. And he doesn't hide it well.

    It's a caricature problem - if not a character problem_ and it hardened against Obama when word leaked of remarks he made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco.

    Explaining his struggles appealing to working-class voters, Obama said they were frustrated with the loss of jobs under both Republican and Democratic administrations over the last decade, adding: "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 is right that people are frustrated, even angry: Americans are more pessimistic about their economic situation than they have been for more than a quarter century, according to the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan. But the Illinois senator played to type by suggesting that guns and God are mere crutches that people "cling to" in hard times.

    After withering criticism from Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain, Obama revised his remarks to say that people vote on issues such as guns and religion when they are angry at a political system that he hopes to change.

    "Whenever economic hardship hits, they have faith, they have family, they have traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation," Obama said. "Those are not bad things. Those are the things that are left."

    But the damage is done, and Obama has helped rivals paint a picture of a Harvard-education snob deigning to help the poor, misbegotten masses. McCain's campaign called Obama an elitist. Sen. Clinton used that word, too, and added "out of touch and, frankly, patronizing."

    This is a shared human experience. In our own lives, we draw caricatures of friends, family and co-workers - even ourselves - and nod our heads or laugh when somebody plays to type. The slobbish uncle. The snobbish aunt. The red-faced, brutish boss. Actually, the uncle is just a bit unruffled, the aunt is only a little too self-confident and the boss is simply tired of his employees goofing off - all grains of truth to be exploited.

    The elitist caricature is no more or less revealing of Obama's true self than the ones that saddled past candidates. The first President Bush was, indeed, just a tad out of touch. Bill Clinton did dissemble as president, though much about him was authentic. Kerry changed positions no more than most politicians in 2004, but he did lack an inner political core. The second President Bush is not dumb, but he is intellectually incurious.

    Obama's rivals have their own caricatures, created and fed by their conduct. Watch the press and public pounce on any sign that McCain is too old or "Senator Hothead," the nickname his temper earned him in Congress. Sen. Clinton has a reputation for doing and saying anything to get elected, a context she played into by exaggerating the danger of her 1996 trip to Bosnia.

    Obama tried to exploit that caricature Sunday by mocking the senator's efforts to court gun owners, saying she was "talking like she's Annie Oakley."

    "Hillary Clinton's out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday. She's packing a six-shooter," Obama said amid laughter from supporters. "Come on, She knows better."

    Another salvo in a caricature election.


    EDITOR'S: Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.