How Obama Can Shed the 'Elitist' Label

Senator Obama, you stand accused of being an out-of-touch, arugula-eating Ivy League elitist who couldn't convert a one-pin spare if the presidency depended on it. I don't have a dog in this fight (despite what Hillary Clinton supporters sometimes think of me) but here are my suggestions for how to reach, and be seen reaching, the "the real America" as you continue to grind toward the Democratic nomination. Obviously, you've got to talk in more meat-and-potatoes terms about how your economic proposals will help working people. But that's only part of what you need to do:

TELL US IN CONCRETE TERMS WHERE YOU ARE FROM. Kids under 30 don't care about geography. Born and bred in the Mapquest and GPS era, they can't even read a map. They live in and on the Internet, which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They are from brands, not places; lifestyle choices, not home-town roots. But that is not true of older people. For them, "where you are from" still matters, and you have to do a better, simpler job of explaining it in terms they understand. And where is that? It's not Indonesia, and it's probably not Hawaii (hard to translate in any case). It's not the Ivy League. You are from where you chose to be from, which is the South Side of Chicago.

WELCOME US TO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. So far, voters don't know much about your local roots. You have told them about being a "community organizer," but, as worthy as that may have been, most people haven't the faintest idea what it means. Unfortunately for you, they also know about your former minister (and his nasty remarks, which will haunt you forever). And they sort of know about a retired Weatherman you drank chablis with. So fill out the rest of the portrait of Hyde Park and the South Side. I know it well enough to know that it is as "real" as anywhere else in this great country. So bring us home with you. I don't even know if you are a White Sox fan! You're always talking about the chatter in the "barber shops." Take us to the one you go to. We've all seen the movie, and it was a wonderfully endearing one.

DEFEND THE CITIES. You cannot accept the premise—successfully pushed by Republicans since the days of Ronald Reagan—that our big metropolitan areas somehow aren't in the "mainstream." (Not surprisingly, this notion arose when many of the cores of those places came to be dominated by African-Americans in the '60s.) But the whole point of America is that there are many mainstreams, and it is un-American to say otherwise. Back in, say, the 1950s, no one ever said that Brooklyn was not America. Heck, it was the very embodiment of the American ideal, underdog Dodgers and all. And don't forget that for the first time in human history, more than half the population of the world lives in metropolitan areas.

ACCEPT THE THEATRICS. I know that you find some of the ritualistic aspects of politics silly if not phony. Your whole candidacy is about "authenticity," and you want to remain true to what you are, or what you have become, after a sometimes confusing mixed-race and intercontinental upbringing. But you have to surrender—with a smile—to the cheesy theatrics of American politics. I know you are cool. Lord knows you are cool. But you have to look like you are enjoying making a fool of yourself.

UNDERSTAND ICONS AND SYMBOLS. You should fire whoever allowed three guys in Abercrombie & Fitch shirts to stand behind you at your big post-Pennsylvania rally in Indiana. You don't need Abercrombie & Fitch—you need Smith & Wesson. I know you are a constitutional-law professor and you appreciate intellectual subtlety, but you have to know what the kids who love you know—that semiotics is all. Branding is all. And you need more brands in your quiver. Including the flag. The next time someone asks you about the absence of a flag pin on your suit, say this: "I don't need to wear patriotism on my lapel because patriotism is in my heart." And don't assume that a speech, however well crafted, will take care of it. Two years ago, you gave a brilliant defense of the need for faith in the public square, but that should have been just the beginning of that sales effort on the score, not the end of it. Let's hear it again.

KNOW WHAT YOU ARE UP AGAINST. Let's face it, becoming the first African-American president is a tough gig. It's made tougher in your case by the fact that you are from a big city, you have a liberal voting record and even (paradoxically) because you come from the Ivy League and the professoriat. Frankly, it would be better if you were from a small town in the South, had served a hitch in the gulf war and had gone to, say, Ole Miss. It's no accident that the last three Democratic presidents—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—were small-town Southerners. You are what you are, and we can all be thankful for the guts and ambition you have shown, but realize what you are up against.

LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN AS FAST AS YOU CAN. If you play this right, the campaign can and will continue to be an education in the country. You didn't get much, frankly, merely representing the South Side in Springfield, or in a Senate race in Illinois against a farce of a Republican candidate in 2004. As you have said, you have now been to 47 states. Now you have to dig deeper, starting in, say, southern Indiana.

Join the Discussion