Commentary Magazine


Obama’s America

One of the things worth noting about Senator Obama’s comments about the “bitter” working class voters who “cling” to guns, religion, and nativist sentiments because of their “frustrations” is this: Obama’s view of America and Americans is almost unremittingly bleak. In his increasingly prickly and aggressive defense, Obama insists that his comments about ordinary Americans are accurate. He is, he insists, completely “in touch” with the struggles that define modern American life. At least that’s how he defines things: if you review Obama’s speeches, his portrait of Americans is of a people broken and dispirited, anxious and angry and without hope (and for whom Obama, as you might have guessed, is the balm).

Obama has spoken about crumbling schools, growing divisions, and shattered dreams. He speaks about the one father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake at night wondering how he’s going to pay the bills, and the father who’s worried he won’t be able to send his children to college . . . about the mother who can’t afford health care for her sick child and the other mother who saw her mortgage double in two weeks and didn’t know where her two-year old children would sleep at night . . . the woman who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can’t afford health care for a sick sister . . . the senior who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin’ Donuts after school just to make ends meet, and on and on. The American public, Obama believes, has justifiably become cynical, frustrated, and bitter.

It’s also worth considering the views of those to whom Obama is closest. His wife Michelle has said that America is “downright mean.” It’s a nation whose soul is “broken.” And it’s a nation in which she had never, until her husband ran for President, taken pride. Obama’s longtime friend, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., describes America as fundamentally racist, the “U.S. of K.K.K,” a “Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies.”

Senator Obama, in casting himself as a change agent, wants to focus on the failings of our nation. That is typical fare for a presidential candidate. It’s perfectly legitimate, and even right, to call attention to problems that need to be solved and the struggles people are having.

The question for Obama, however, is whether his portrait of America is defining. Does he believe that his comments about working-class people are actually characteristic of them? When he looks out at Americans does he see people who are, on some deep level, broken, bitter, angry, and unable to cope with the vicissitudes of life?

It appears that he does. And if he does, it certainly explains his support for paternalistic government and for the nanny state. It has become unfashionable to point out that for all the problems we face, those of us now living in America are the most fortunate people in history. We live in a nation of extraordinary wealth and scientific and medical advancements. This country, while not without its flaws, has made great strides in alleviating poverty, discrimination, and injustice. We are free to speak, vote, worship, and associate with others. Americans now live longer and better than any previous generation. Our nation remains a force for good in the world. That doesn’t mean our citizen’s lives are without challenges or concerns. It only means that, relative to the rest of the world and relative to history, we’re in pretty good shape.

On some deep level, Obama doesn’t see this. He looks out at America and sees a nation needy, crippled, and desperate for succor from the federal government. A friend of mine wrote to me yesterday:

The supreme arrogance of this man [Obama] comes through with every new defense. I just saw his remarks to the steelworkers in Pittsburgh and, again, it’s everyone else who’s out of touch. Also, it really is a slander against millions of people. I’ve belonged to small town churches all my life (and still do) and I belong to [a gun club in his home state of Minnesota]. It’s hard to find more positive, affirming, communities than small town churches and the hunting/fishing/outdoor culture. What he really doesn’t “get” is the non-materialistic nature of these cultures.

That sounds about right to me. Barack Obama is running as the candidate of hope–but he views America as more or less a wreck and its people as beaten down. From this flawed assumption flows much else, from his rhetoric to his policy proposals. And it helps explain why Obama’s off-the-record comments to a group of wealthy liberals in San Francisco weren’t a “distraction,” as he now characterizes them, but rather a real insight into the mind and sensibilities of the junior senator from Illinois.

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