In recent weeks Barack Obama has been faulted for, among other things, misunderstanding working-class gun owners and church goers, bowling a 37, wanting a Philly cheese steak with goat cheese instead of Cheez Whiz, and associating with a former Sixties radical who is now a professor of English. These accusations, aimed at him by the Clinton campaign and various Republican sources, amount to a single insinuation: Obama has failed to pass the “I’m just like you” test. Previous politicians who have similarly failed: John Kerry for windsurfing, Michael Dukakis for posing in an Army tank, Al Gore for “throwing like a girl” when he played touch football in a campaign ad, and John Edwards for getting a haircut that allegedly cost $400.
Example of a politician who passed with flying colors: George W. Bush.
Let’s examine, then, whether such a test is a worthy or at least innocuous ritual that all politicians must endure in a democracy, a form of reassurance that the privileged elite won’t take power. Pres. Bush is the textbook definition of the privileged elite, both socially and economically. Unlike Obama, his financial comfort has been assured since the day of his birth. Yet he fits the image of a regular guy who would be comfortable hoisting a few at the corner bar with off-work steelworkers. In reality the Republican Party is staunchly a club for privileged white males, which has had the good fortune to convince less fortunate white males that they all belong under one roof.
We can leave that aside, and also the question of whether Bush basically represents only the rich and their special interests. The deeper point is that “I’m just like you” is a sham. The U.S. Senate is made up 80% of lawyers and former prosecutors. The vast majority are millionaires. Rich or not, they must placate wealthy special interests in order to raise campaign funds. Despite the elitist suspicions aimed by Hillary Clinton at Obama, her family’s $109 million income since Bill Clinton left office isn’t lunch box money, nor did it come without influence peddling to those who can afford to pay. By comparison, Obama’s education, intelligence, and relative lack of pandering to the rich is more than admirable. It’s even non-elitist, as evidenced by the fact that his campaign money rests on a core of small contributors, 2.5 million strong, rather than Sen. Clinton’s small group of fat cats, party loyalists, and her husband’s carefully groomed political connections.
In a NY Times column last week, David Brooks declared that Obama is now tarnished, that he has fallen to earth from his idealistic campaign of last winter and is now nothing more than a conventional liberal whose chances in November deeply worry savvy Democratic politicians. But this is merely a Republican wish masquerading as reality. A surge of hope lifted Obama’s candidacy in the first place, and even if he has entered a period of fatigue and counter-punching, no one mistakes his candidacy for business as usual. The real worry is that a lulled electorate will allow itself to be duped once more by the “I’m just like you” litmus test. They might. The Republican smear machine has been effective, and public apathy and aversion to politicians have bred a climate where trivial issues trump critically important ones. But Obama has rested his case on the need to wake up. People have been doing just that. There’s every hope in November that voters will be able to tell the difference between a lame bowling game and a disastrous, dishonest war.