Something about Barack Obama’s manner bothers Margaret Cowan.
“There’s something egotistical about him,” the Sheridan, Colo., retiree said. “It’s the way he struts around.”
Many swing voters here and throughout the country consider the presumptive Democratic nominee distant, pompous, arrogant, even elitist.
“It’s a big issue that he needs to address,” said Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Obama has Ivy League degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities. He’s extraordinarily articulate and exudes self-confidence. Those credentials and qualities combine to strike some people as arrogant.
He counters by reminding voters that he was raised by a single mother of modest means and worked as a Chicago community organizer. Those aren’t elitist roots.
Not to mention that presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, also could be tagged as having an elitist background.
But McCain’s campaign persona is much more regular-guy than professor, rooted more in his towel-snapping naval aviator background than in the traditions of his military family. He doesn’t arouse the same reaction.
Voters who voice the objection cite the way Obama cocks his head when he orates, his sometimes professorial demeanor, his failure to speak in succinct sound bites and his noted reference to “arugula” rather than “lettuce” when chatting with Iowans. All are easy to caricature.
The Obama camp says that voters just don’t know its candidate well yet. As a result, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, Obama shifted his campaign appearances this summer to smaller, less formal venues such as town hall meetings or unannounced diner stops rather than the giant arena orations he specialized in earlier.
“There was a recognition in the primaries that we spent a little too much time doing the big rallies,” Psaki said. “People think Obama’s fame or the fact they know him from a speech or a book is his totality, and it’s not.”
Wednesday, for instance, he visited the Greensboro, N.C., farmers’ curb market, where he sampled a biscuit, a peach and a zucchini muffin and bought a pound cake and a bag of peaches.
Obama’s latest offensive, though, is up against a Republican message machine with a strong record of success. In 2000, George W. Bush, the son of a president and grandson of a U.S. senator, was the baseball-lovin’ good ol’ boy from west Texas. In 2004, Republican loyalists attacked the military record of decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry.
Obama unwittingly has helped Republicans craft his image. In April, the Illinois senator told a San Francisco audience that people in small Midwestern towns were “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
The comments, McCain said, were “elitist.” Sen. Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, said so, too. McCain has kept up the drumbeat this summer.
Obama’s problem, said John Straayer, a political analyst at Colorado State University, is that “there’s still a mystery element to this guy, and the opposition so far has done a good job of defining him.”
David Campt, a San Francisco-based consultant on racial diversity, saw Obama inheriting a problem that’s often dogged Democrats since they nominated Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952.
“The party’s candidates tend to have an intellectual way of expressing their views,” often with nuance and detail. “That gets portrayed as effete and elitist. People like simplicity,” Campt said.
“There’s a little bit of Kerry in Obama in that he seems aloof and not as engaged as McCain,” said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University.
Penni Pier, a rhetoric expert at Iowa’s Wartburg College, saw another factor at work: Elitism as a euphemism for race.
“You can’t come out and say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with a black man as president,’ but it’s entirely possible that there’s a segment of the population that feels that way,” she said.
Kristine Cole, an Obama supporter from Raleigh, N.C., agreed.
Elitism, she said, “is code for the N-word. . . . If he’s a white guy no one’s saying he’s elitist; he’s doing what everybody else is doing.”
McCain backers and undecided voters dispute that point.
“He’s just not my kind of candidate. Certainly some of it is inexperience, but some is attitude,” said Sally Whittaker, a Boulder, Colo., clothing store manager.
“I get a pompous vibe from him, and I don’t like that.”
Obama has no easy way to overcome the perception.
“I don’t know that he can. It may be part and parcel of him,” said Robert Friedenberg, a professor of communication at Miami University of Ohio.
The elitist perception, he pointed out, doesn’t automatically doom a candidate. “We have had presidents who were elitist,” he said, notably Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
In fact, history suggests that changing one’s persona to suit the political climate usually winds up worsening the image problem.
The usually blue-suited Al Gore tried wearing more earth tones in 1999 as he launched his White House bid. Ivy Leaguer George H. W. Bush kept “Poppy’s pork rinds” on his Oval Office desk. Obama went bowling during April’s Pennsylvania primary campaign, and rolled a 37.
Middlebury’s Davis suggested that Obama should focus on other matters.
Clinton did well in late spring primaries by talking about health care and jobs, Davis said, so “Obama needs to offer as many specifics as possible. Talk about home foreclosures, for instance, or health care.”
Obama’s strategists accept that point.
“One of our biggest battle tools is that Barack Obama and John McCain have completely different approaches to energy, the economy, foreign policy,” campaign spokeswoman Psaki said.
That makes sense to some voters.
“Obama needs to show how he’s something different and McCain is more of the same,” said Tyler Houghton, a University of Colorado student.
Elizabeth Bennett, a Littleton, Colo., teacher, agreed.
“I want new ideas. I want to hear about a new way of doing business,” she said. “I want that feeling of optimism.”