Cover Story: Obama's 'Bubba Gap'

There was a time, not so long ago, when the advisers to John McCain worried a great deal about running against Barack Obama. "We'll never get those kind of crowds," a McCain aide admitted, almost mournfully, to a NEWSWEEK reporter as they stood watching television coverage of a packed Obama rally in South Carolina last January. Obama seemed to have a kind of transcendent power, an ability to convince voters that he was not just another politician. Most McCain aides at the time wanted to run against Hillary Clinton, whom they regarded as a traditional tax-and-spend Democrat with unusually high negative ratings.

But lately, McCain aides have been making gleeful jokes about Obama. On the campaign trail, at dinner with reporters, they sometimes order the arugula salad, poking fun at some comments Obama made last summer in Iowa ("Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?"). "Do you see how much they are charging for this?" a McCain aide asked a reporter at one such dinner at a restaurant, pointing to the menu and feigning shock. Following Hillary Clinton's lead, the McCain team sees an opportunity to paint Obama as an out-of-touch elitist, a Harvard toff who nibbles daintily at designer salads while the working man, worried about layoffs at the plant, belts another shot. Though the McCain advisers are divided about who would make the more beatable candidate in November, they see a chance to peel off Reagan Democrats—older working-class voters—in key swing states of the rust belt if Obama is the Democratic nominee. While McCain himself is publicly neutral on which Democrat he would prefer to oppose, in recent weeks he has noticeably gone easier on Clinton than Obama, perhaps out of hopes of winning over some of her working-class base.

It is true that the McCain team still expects Obama to be their opponent in November. It is also true that on the electoral maps of many prognosticators, Obama lines up better against McCain than does Clinton. Still, there can be no doubt after last Tuesday's 9-point loss in Pennsylvania that Obama is having trouble "closing the deal," as Hillary tauntingly put it, with the Democrats. Pennsylvania voters may just admire Hillary's grittiness and prefer her relentless focus on the needs of ordinary voters who clamor for health care and better schools and worry about losing their jobs to overseas competitors. She may seem more down to earth than her competitor, who is better known for his generalities, however uplifting. But in Obama's failure to lock up the nomination, there may be something more disturbing going on as well.

Americans do not like to talk about class, and they want to believe racism is a thing of the past. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, paragons of the people, were decidedly upper class in background, style and habit, and no one seemed to mind (except some other members of the upper class, who regarded the Roosevelts as "traitors" for wanting to tax and regulate the rich). JFK and Ronald Reagan were princely in their own ways (of Camelot and Hollywood) and yet could touch the hearts of common men and women. We want our presidents to be everyman (or every woman), of the people for all the people. When Richard Nixon dressed the White House guards in uniforms more appropriate to the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, everyone hooted.

The most successful presidents have always been open and hopeful, sunny and optimistic about the promise of American equality and opportunity. But there has long been a dark side to democratic politics, a willingness to play on prejudice, to get men and women to vote their fears and not their hopes. Those prejudices fade and seem to die down, but they never quite go away. They remain embers for cunning political operatives to fan into flames.

An exit poll of Pennsylvania voters included a chilling number that makes one wonder if Americans, or at least some groups in some parts of America, are ready to elect a black president. In the poll, 12 percent of whites said that race was a factor in deciding their votes. To be sure, a quarter of those voted for Obama, and gender was also a factor (for 14 percent of women and 6 percent of men). Polling on race is tricky. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 19 percent of American voters say that the country is not ready to elect an African-American president. Yet when asked if Obama's race makes a difference, only 3 percent of whites say Obama's race makes it less likely they would support him, while 5 percent of whites (and 16 percent of non-whites) say his race would make it more likely they would support him. What people will do in the privacy of the polling booth remains mysterious. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, more than half the voters said they think "most" (12 percent) or "some" (41 percent) of the voters will "have reservations about voting for a black candidate that they are not willing to express." In close elections, decided on the margins, it is discouraging to think that a small minority of racists could make the difference.

What is just weird is this: how can it be that a black man running for president is accused of being too elitist? For the first century of the nation's existence, blacks were kept in chains. For the next century, they were sent to the back of the bus and kept away from whites-only lunch counters and restrooms throughout the South—much less allowed to join the white elite in their schools and clubs and prestigious institutions. Then, starting in the 1960s, American society began to make a concerted effort to open up those doors. Barack Obama is not so much the beneficiary of that effort as the proof that blacks can make it on their own, if given the chance. He was, despite a modest upbringing, elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, a position at the very tip of the meritocratic ziggurat.

Yet to pockets of America, he still seems to be the "other." He seems a little strange, exotic; those cracked e-mails whispering about his middle name (Hussein) and declaring, fictitiously, that he is a Muslim who insisted on being sworn into office on the Qur'an rather than the Bible, keep buzzing around the Internet. To some, his manner is haughty; he is a bit of an egghead, one of those pointy-headed intellectuals whom George W. Bush liked to ridicule as a Deke brother at Yale and even later as president of the United States (and, long before him, demagogues like the anti-Semitic right-wing radio priest of the 1940s, Father Charles Coughlin; Red-baiter Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, and race-baiter Gov. George Wallace of Alabama).

Demagoguing, even in the subtle ways enabled by new media, can have an impact over time. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 13 percent reported that Obama is Muslim. NEWSWEEK reporters on the campaign trail could hear the wariness, even fearfulness, of voters as they spoke about Obama. Secretly taped by a "citizen journalist," then reported online, Obama's remarks to San Francisco fund-raisers—that some voters in economically depressed towns "cling" to religion and guns out of "bitterness"—did not sit well, nor did the endlessly replayed YouTube videos of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., ranting against America. Richard Vallejo, 65, of Bristol, Pa., a typical working-class town, has voted Democratic all his life. But of Obama, Vallejo says: "He's prejudiced against white people. I'm in a small town and if I own a gun, it's not because I'm bitter. It is because of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms." In Indiana, the next stop on the primary trail on May 6, Brenda Spreitzer, 42, told a NEWSWEEK reporter at a Clinton rally: "I think Barack's viewpoints and his past is too flamboyant. It's more radical than I want to go … I'm just not comfortable," she said, adding that she is concerned about Obama's practice of generally not wearing an American flag pin. (None of the candidates wear flag pins.) She has been researching Obama on the Internet and discovered that he wants to tear out the bowling alley in the White House (Obama has kiddingly said he wants to replace it with a basketball court). "That freaked me out because no matter if he bowls or not, it's a historic thing that should never be changed."

Hillary Clinton has described Obama's remarks about small-town bitterness as "elitist, out of touch and frankly patronizing." Clinton strategist Harold Ickes tells NEWSWEEK "she clearly has established a connection with people who work hard for a living and are having difficulty making ends meet." One Clinton ad, featuring a waitress in a diner, says, "She's worked the night shift, too" (never mind that she is a graduate of Wellesley and Yale Law). McCain's advisers, meanwhile, have enjoyed watching Clinton attack Obama over his remarks. "Manna from heaven," said one McCain aide, who did not wish to be identified gloating. Come the fall campaign, GOP operatives can be counted on to caricature Obama as a gutter-ball-throwing populist phony who is far more at home in a sherry-sipping faculty club than at a bowling alley.

The Republican Party has had a field day over the past half-century making fun of Democrats who are "effete"—first Adlai Stevenson, a cultivated brainiac who lost twice to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s; then Michael Dukakis, a former professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who made the mistake of being ludicrously photographed in a tank helmet and allowed himself to be cornered as somehow soft on crime (read: black crime); then John Kerry, a Yale man who seemed to enjoy windsurfing in Nantucket a little too much (forget that he was decorated for valor in Vietnam). Now there is Obama, a man who seems to want to think before he speaks and lacks Hillary Clinton's enthusiasm for hoisting a beer glass or throwing back shots of Crown Royal Canadian whisky for the ever-present cameramen.

Obama has had the misfortune to run for the presidency in an age when reporters are watching, it seems, every time the candidate picks up a fork or orders a meal. Here is The New York Times's Maureen Dowd on Obama's efforts to appear to be a regular guy through carbohydrate consumption: "In the final days in Pennsylvania, he dutifully logged time at diners and force-fed himself waffles, pancakes, sausage, and a Philly cheesesteak. He split the pancakes with Michelle, left some of the waffle and sausage behind, and gave away the French fries that came with the cheesesteak. But this is clearly a man who can't wait to get back to his organic scrambled egg whites …"

Imagine what reporters would have written about the dining habits and tastes of patricians like Franklin Roosevelt or John or Robert F. Kennedy—had reporters written about such things. With his cigarette holder and martini shaker and Groton accent, FDR was almost a parody of a rich swell. JFK, who had Palm Beach tastes, liked a daiquiri before dinner; on the campaign trail, at the end of the day, RFK relaxed, not with a boilermaker, but with a Heineken and a bowl of chocolate ice cream (by unwritten rules in a more decorous age, such details were either not mentioned or not dwelled upon by reporters in their daily dispatches).

Obama himself is more than a little vexed by the charge that he is elitist. Of course, there are privileged African-American families; his own daughters, Sasha and Malia, are being educated at a Chicago private school. Obama suggested to ABC's George Stephanopoulos that they did not need affirmative action at a university. "I think my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," said Obama. But his own story is much more hardscrabble. He was raised by a single parent, his mother, who lived on food stamps for a time. He graduated from an Ivy League college—Columbia—but worked as a low-paid community organizer in Chicago. After Harvard Law, he turned down the high-pay, high-prestige jobs in corporate-law firms to work in a small civil-rights firm, mostly on voting-rights cases. He talks about his experiences helping the poor in the shadows of shuttered steel plants in Chicago. "Politics didn't lead me to working folks," he says, "working folks led me to politics." His wife, Michelle, is more emphatic. "I am a product of a working-class background," she says. "I am one of those folks who grew up in that struggle. That is the lens through which I see the world." (A close read of her Princeton thesis suggests where her heart lay even after four years in the Ivy League: the paper is a paean to staying in touch with her black working-class roots.) "So," Michelle recently told a high-school audience in Evansville, Ind., "when people talk about this elitist stuff, I say, 'You couldn't possibly know anything about me'."

Obama's chief campaign adviser, David Axelrod, bridles at the elitist charge: "In terms of his personal habits, this is a guy who is an ESPN sports fanatic, who plays basketball for relaxation. When he's out and about, he's more solicitous of the people around him, the people on the street and the kitchen workers and the police officers than almost any politician I have known. Anybody who advances the argument that he's an elitist simply doesn't know the guy. It's generally the elite who advance the argument."

It is possible to overstate the damage done by Obama's elitist image. It is an old shibboleth that blue-collar voters are a mainstay of the Democratic Party. The paraphernalia of working-class politics have become central to campaign imagery —sharing a beer, going bowling and standing in the back of a pickup truck. The catch is that blue-collar workers make up a much smaller percentage of the population than in the heyday of the New Deal Democrats. Since 1940, white-collar workers have grown from 32 percent to 60 percent, according to a Brookings Institution study. In 1940, three quarters of adults older than 25 were high-school dropouts or never went to high school at all. By 1960, 59 percent still lacked a high-school education. By last year the figure was down to 14 percent.

In Pennsylvania, Obama lost to Clinton among voters earning less than $50,000 a year by 8 points, 54 to 46 percent. But his performance among lower-income voters actually improved in the six weeks between Ohio and Pennsylvania, despite the flaps over Wright and the "bitter" remark. In Ohio, he lost the lower-income vote by 12 percent. But Obama's aides are quick to point out that Obama won among voters earning less than $50,000 in another key industrial Midwest state—Wisconsin, in early February—and that indeed, he has defeated Hillary Clinton among low income voters in 14 of 30 states where there were exit polls. (In many of those states, there are large numbers of poor black voters.) Obama's bigger problem is with older voters, say these aides. Obama's newness and "otherness" seems to be a concern with older, poorer, less-educated female voters. Some elderly voters may have a harder time shedding old prejudices.

It is also worth noting, the Obama-ites say, that in a recent Gallup poll, when asked if each presidential candidate "looks down upon the average American" or "respects the average American," only 26 percent responded that Obama "looks down." That was 4 points more than McCain but 6 points less than Hillary. (In the NEWSWEEK Poll, Obama did better than both McCain and Clinton: 25 percent said Obama "looks down on people like you," versus 26 percent for McCain and 32 percent for Clinton.) In Pennsylvania exit polling, on the critical question of which candidate is "in touch with people like you," 67 percent said Clinton was, versus 66 percent for Obama—a virtual tie.

Figuring out who might do better against McCain in November requires a certain amount of guesswork and often reflects the wishes and hopes of who's doing the guessing. Eyeing those Reagan Democrats, the McCain camp believes that if Obama wins the nomination, the Republicans might have a shot at some states considered to be safe Clinton territory, like New York and New Jersey. Those big former industrial states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan—could all go Republican if the Democrats pick Obama. On the other hand, the Obama advisers argue that by appealing to independents and registering new young voters, Obama could take states in the West like Colorado and Nevada that seem unreachable to Clinton. By energizing his black base, Obama could even take away two or three Southern states— Virginia and the Carolinas, perhaps—from the GOP. The Obama-ites also predict that once the hard fighting of the primaries finally ends, the Democratic Party will come together, and Democrats alienated by all the feuding will come home.

Obama's promise of success depends on more than soothing the Democratic base, however. He will not be able to re-create the magic of those huge, idolatrous rallies in January and February by drinking beer chasers and eating more waffles. What he had—and what he has lost, at least for the time being—is something more ineffable, a hope of changing politics as commonly understood, and disdained, by voters of all classes and races.

The arc of New York Times columnist David Brooks is illustrative. The widely read and influential Brooks, a onetime neocon who had moved somewhat to the middle or at least become unpredictable in his politics, first seemed to fall in love a year ago. He was interviewing Obama and asked about foreign-aid programs. "His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they're afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on," wrote Brooks. "Out of the blue, I asked, 'Have you read Reinhold Niebuhr?' Obama's tone changed. 'I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers.' So I asked, 'What do you take away from him?' " Obama went on to dazzle Brooks with his grasp of Niebuhr's "The Irony of American History." The junior senator from Illinois showed a subtle feel for the need for America to act humbly but not passively in the wicked world, to be prudent but also bold and tough. At times Obama lapsed back into vacuous generalities, but Brooks's interest had been piqued.

By March of this year, Brooks was writing about Obama's "defining moment," how in November 2007, a couple of months before the Iowa caucuses, Obama had showed Clinton up. Hillary had given a rousing partisan harangue ("We are here tonight to make sure that the next president is a Democrat!") and used the word "fight" or "fought" 15 times in one passage of her speech. Obama, on the other hand, ignored partisanship. He described a whole new order, way beyond politics as usual—a theory of social change that was not top-down, dictated by the old party hacks, but bottom-up. Obama sounded like "a cross between a social activist and a flannel-shirted software CEO—as a nonhierarchical, collaborative leader who can inspire autonomous individuals to cooperate for the sake of common concerns." The audience, particularly the younger members described by Brooks as raised on "Facebook, YouTube, open-source software," loved it. Brooks loved it.

Yet, just five weeks later, Brooks was writing "How Obama Fell to Earth." The columnist was discouraged by Obama's performance in the pre-Pennsylvania primary debate. "Obama has emerged as a more conventional politician and a more orthodox liberal," Brooks wrote. "He sprinkled his debate performance Wednesday night with the sort of fibs, evasions and hypocrisies that are the stuff of conventional politics."

Obama might win Brooks back if he returned to his high-mindedness and stopped pandering. But winning over the great mass of American voters is tricky. Obama has stood for change, and when it comes to changing politics, many Americans are with him. But change, more broadly imagined, is threatening to a lot of people, and not just high-school dropouts who own guns and live in rust-belt states. McCain, too, is out preaching change—attacking the political arena of Washington, where he has worked for more than two decades. But McCain drapes himself in red, white and blue; he is a thoroughly familiar figure, the war hero. Obama represents something newer and stranger in presidential politics, a black man with a Harvard degree who reads Niebuhr but is perfectly at home shooting hoops on a Chicago playground. To get the Democratic nomination, and to win the presidency, Obama has to show that he is not just a rock-star speechifier—or a worn-down pol trying to limp over the goal line without saying something that could possibly be used against him. He has to show voters who he really is. Most of them still don't know.

Join the Discussion