Timing poses a second problem, hurricanes apart. The United States is in the doldrums. The economic news — high unemployment, credit-downgrading, a ruined housing market, almost no growth, record debt, trillion-dollar-plus deficits, soaring fuel and food prices — is not just bad, but seems to be getting worse. Could not the president have gone home to Chicago for a week, followed by a weekend at Camp David — demonstrating in symbolic fashion to hurting Americans that their chief executive is cutting back on exclusive travel and amenities? Even Jimmy Carter knew enough to turn down the White House thermostat and put on a cardigan sweater when gas was hard to find. The misdemeanors of phony man-of-the-people photo-ops (the awkward, camouflaged John Kerry coming back from goose hunting) are usually far outweighed by the felonies of “I do what I want to do” overt elitism (the smug windsurfing John Kerry in spandex).
Finally, this summer’s golfing at Martha’s Vineyard has torn the curtain away from an image that Barack Obama has taken a lifetime to cultivate, to considerable advantage. He was decidedly a middle-class prep-schooler in Hawaii. He was not born into Clinton-like poverty. Occidental and Columbia are not Eureka College or Texas A&M. When Obama finally got some real money, he almost immediately bought a wannabe Chicago mansion and tried to enhance his grounds with help from Mrs. Tony Rezko. Nothing in Obama’s résumé suggests poverty — or disdain for elite enjoyment.
To square his apparently embarrassing middle-class circle, Obama has brilliantly manipulated some weird facets of American culture: Being not quite so-called “white,” and vocally left-wing, can mean that even a multi-millionaire has innate street credibility and can qualify for minority victimhood. The fact that Barack Obama is part Kenyan meant for many — and apparently for Barack Obama himself — that a record number of presidential golf outings, and Michelle’s Costa del Sol jetting, were still excused by the fossilized 1960s nexus between poverty, prejudice, and race.
Likewise, Obama (thanks to the two-decade tutelage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) does not talk like someone from Hawaii — at least not all the time. With some flair, he is able to turn on and off the slightly southern soaring cadences of the inner city (better than Hillary Clinton’s awkward attempts at clingers populism), both to reassure skeptical blacks of his racial solidarity and authenticity, and (as Harry Reid bluntly noted of the adroitly opportunistic diction) to remind his white liberal supporters that their efforts at penance really were genuinely well grounded. Again, in our upside-down world of race, a Clarence Thomas or a Condoleezza Rice, who grew up amid the authentic African-American struggle against Jim Crow, could never quite be as legitimately “black” as was Barack Obama (preppie, half-white/half-Kenyan), simply because liberal identity politics offers instant superficial authentication in a way real life cannot.
But this last in-your-face Martha’s Vineyard vacation was one too many even for our most adroit gymnast of identity and class politics: The public at last really does believe that Barack Obama, whatever his heritage or nomenclature, is an out-of-touch elitist who simply likes hanging out with wealthy people and shares their refined tastes, even as millions are out of work or broke. This summer all the old SEIU talk about “fat cats” and “corporate jets” has been reduced to a parlor game.
In short, this year’s vacation was a vineyard too far.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.