Despite a decidedly mixed picture in Ohio and Texas, Barack Obama seems very likely on his way to the Democratic nomination. He has been chastened by Hillary Clinton’s (albeit modest) resurgence, but he remains the man to beat, and he remains something of a phenomenon in American politics — a rock-star politician celebrated by swooning masses.
On college campuses Obama is a demi-god, and on the trail you get the sense that some of his supporters are not so sure about the “demi.” On several occasions now, audience members at campaign events have fainted merely from the thrill of being in Obama’s presence. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, introducing the candidate at a rally, said of the Obama experience, “this is not a campaign for President of the United States, this is a movement to change the world.” Hollywood, too, has seen the light. “He walks into a room and you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere,” actor George Clooney told PBS’s Charlie Rose. “I’ll do whatever he says to do,” actress Halle Berry said to reporters without a hint of irony, “I’ll collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear.”
Several of Obama’s celebrity devotees even put his words to music earlier this year (and Obama has said the resulting song is his favorite campaign tune), and more recently have followed up with an even more worshipful sequel in which a long parade of stars each gently sways before the camera mouthing painfully dull platitudes (“I would like to see us in a world without fear”; “I believe in Barack Obama because he believes in us”; “he’s almost like a revival for a lot of people’s souls”) while in the background Obama’s voice can be heard delivering the good news that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
It is not actually clear that Obama has sought to make his campaign such a cult of personality, but whether sought or not, this is how he has been received. The traveling revivalist cabaret has certainly helped Obama immensely, and contributed to his electoral strength, but it also carries serious risks for him. In the long run, the messianic flavor of his campaign could endanger his support from the very quarters now most receptive to the message; and even in the short run it could hurt him with blue-collar voters who have little patience for the grand production.
The Culture of Cool
America’s cultural elites are easily swept up in fashionable new idealisms, especially those that confirm their existing predilections and demand no serious personal sacrifice. But the culture of cool is also powerfully allergic to forthright displays of devotion and fervor. Its most powerful weapon is sarcasm, and the kind of piety on display in the Obama movement seems to beg for sarcastic deflation. Can we doubt that a South Park episode concluding in the handing out of Kool-Aid at an Obama rally is forthcoming?
Can Jon Stewart’s Daily Show put up with statements like Halle Barry’s above for long before letting loose a massive assault on the whole endeavor? How long can a politician go around saying “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” before a sharp and memorable punch line leaves him with a nasty lasting bruise? And how will Obama’s young followers respond when forced to choose between the movement to change the world and the snide knowing chuckle?
The frantic pace of our cultural trends means Obama is running a very serious risk of making his most ardent supporters tired of him very quickly. A nasty turn in his press coverage in just the past week offers Obama an ominous preview of how that could feel. This may not be his fault, but it is certainly his problem.
Meanwhile, one crucial Democratic constituency may be tired of the show already. The elitist drift of Obama’s campaign inevitably weakens his appeal among blue-collar voters. And in this regard, it is more than the messianic excesses on the stump, but Obama’s style and personal history that could bring him lasting trouble. Throughout the Democratic primary season, we have witnessed a significant divide between highly educated white-collar voters and less educated blue-collar voters — a pattern powerfully evident in this week’s results in Ohio. Obama’s performance with black voters has masked some of this, but if you examine the white vote in state after state, you find that Barack Obama is the Ph.D.’s candidate, and Hillary Clinton the working stiff’s candidate.
This is not entirely shocking of course. Obama — a son of two Ph.D.s, married to a J.D., and possessed of one himself — is, apart from his race, the epitome of the contemporary American upper class. He and his wife have four Ivy League degrees and two six-figure salaries between them. And the language of his campaign has been the language of America’s elites. As David Brooks has put it, Obama is the Whole Foods candidate while Clinton is the Safeway candidate. Of course “apart from his race” is a rather large caveat, but his performance among white voters suggests Obama’s education and the style of his campaign have been as important to the way these voters have perceived him as his race — a good sign about America’s political life, if not a good sign for the Obama campaign.
Indeed, Obama’s underperformance with blue-collar voters is a very bad sign for his general election prospects. In this primary season, he has constructed a coalition of black voters and highly educated white-collar whites. This may well constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters, but certainly not of general election voters. To win in November, Obama would have to significantly improve his performance beyond those confines.
Blue-collar Democrats, especially in the upper midwest, are the voters Republicans used to think of as Reagan Democrats. For several election cycles now they have been more or less just Democrats. But given Obama’s apparent vulnerability among them in the primaries, Republicans may find an unexpected opening this year.
John McCain is better suited than most Republicans would be to appeal to such voters, as his deeply felt patriotism and old-fashioned sense of honor would speak to them. But he will need more to win their votes. He will need a policy agenda that begins from their concerns, and appeals to blue-collar parents. McCain has at his disposal some of the elements of such an agenda, and it is not too late for him to gather more and to build his appeal to Reagan Democrats. He will get a fuller hearing than Republicans generally do, and Obama will get a colder shoulder than most Democrats do among these voters.
Obama’s vulnerability with Reagan Democrats is particularly problematic for him given the importance of the upper midwest in November. A Republican who can win Ohio and Pennsylvania (which means, in practice, winning big in western Pennsylvania, which might as well be midwestern) is very well on his way to winning the election. No Republican has won both states since 1988, but McCain has a very real prospect of doing so this year. If he does, and if he shows modest strength elsewhere in the upper midwest, Obama would find it almost impossible to beat him nationally.
Barack Obama has run a very effective primary campaign, and his charisma, intelligence, and political skills have troubled the sleep of many Republicans. But the style and culture of his campaign suggest some serious weaknesses that are only beginning to emerge. They suggest above all the danger that voters may grow tired of him before Election Day — a risk no politician can take lightly.