Off-the-Record Obama

Published April 14, 2008

National Review Online

Senator Barack Obama finds himself in the midst of a controversy in the aftermath of comments that he made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco on April 6, during which he explained his difficulty appealing to working-class voters in Pennsylvania. He said, “It's not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment. . . .”

Senator Obama's words are significant because they were said off-the-record, meaning they provided a more authentic glimpse into the attitudes of Obama than a carefully scripted event. Nonetheless, his words were not merely careless; his comments were based on a carefully constructed, if deeply condescending, explanation.

Beneath the enormous charm and cool persona of Obama beats the heart of an arrogant man. With increasing frequency, the 46-year-old one-term senator from Illinois orates as though he resides at Olympian Heights. By his presumptuous demeanor, he suggests that he sees what no one else sees, and can do what no other person can do; he is America's healing balm.

Even his efforts at damage control radiate arrogance. Speaking in Muncie, Indiana, after the story broke, Obama said “Lately, there has been a little, typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my home town in Illinois who are bitter.”

The flare-up, you see, happened because Obama is the Great Truth-Teller amidst the masses, many of whom can't handle the truth. Once it dawned on Obama's aides that expediency demanded an apology, the Senator offered a qualified mea culpa: “Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that.”

So if Senator Obama worded things in a way that made people feel offended (rather than worded things in a way that is offensive), well, he regrets that.

And at last night's “Compassion Forum,” hosted by CNN, Obama accused his critics of “misconstruing . . . [his] words” effectively turning the tables on those who take issue with his comments. In Obama's construal, he is the offended party, and any criticism directed at him is a mere “distraction” from the real issues of the campaign. This method of damage control, as that displayed in the Reverend Wright controversy, implies that simply by questioning the candidate, one is out of line, unfashionable, and uncouth.

I suspect these comments will be quite damaging to Obama because they reinforce (in spite of his efforts to equivocate during this campaign) his conventional liberalism. In this case, though, it's not simply a matter of him being liberal on economic or domestic issues; it demonstrates that he is a cultural liberal, which has been a particularly lethal charge in presidential elections. It is another brush stroke on the canvas of a man who burst onto the national scene less than four years ago and about whom we know very little. But with every passing week, it seems, we are learning more about the Man of Hope.

On a deeper level, what we saw in Obama's comments is a glimpse into a particular worldview, one that animates his political philosophy (contemporary liberalism). Senator Obama seems to view ordinary Americans as bitter, often broken, small-minded objects of pity rather than anger, ostensibly in need of instruction from — you guessed it — Barack Obama. The words of Michelle Obama are worth recalling in this context. She has spoken about her husband pushing us out of our “comfort zones,” saying “Barack knows at some level there is a hole in our souls” and “Barack is the only person in this race who understands that before we can work on the problems as a nation, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.”

This is the Politics of Meaning on steroids. If one views Americans as fundamentally needy children rather than competent citizens, one embraces the precepts of the nanny state — the state that (in Margaret Thatcher's memorable phrase) takes too much from you in order to do too much for you. This provides an enormous opening for Senator McCain, who can frame this election as pitting a candidate who believes in self-government, against a candidate who believes in the nanny state.

Increasingly, Barack Obama appears to be the Candidate of Illusion. He presents himself as post-racial — which is harder to accept than it once was, given his intimate, longtime relationship with a pastor and church that harbor deep and obvious racial anger toward whites. Obama presents himself as post-partisan — even though in his time in the Senate he has done nothing to bridge the partisan divide, which explains why he has been endorsed by the rabidly partisan Obama presents himself as post-ideological — even though he was named the Senate's most liberal member in 2007 by the respected National Journal. Obama is a public critic of free trade — yet his chief economic adviser is quoted by a Canadian official as saying that Obama's position on NAFTA is politically motivated and insincere. Obama speaks about the importance of religious faith in his life and the life of the nation — yet when speaking to a group of rich liberals, he implicitly denigrates people of faith, pairing them with people who have “antipathy to people who aren't like them” and who harbor “anti-immigrant sentiment[s].” He paints religious believers as folks clinging to crutches to better deal with their desperate lives — only to insist last night that his words were actually a tribute to people of religious faith. So sayeth Barack Obama, “healer of broken souls.”

Early on in this campaign I was impressed with Barack Obama as a thoughtful, inspiring, and admirable (if far too liberal) political figure. As the months have worn on, it's become increasingly apparent that the candidate is projecting mere shadows on the wall. Our Republic deserves better.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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