High-minded Obama lacks fear factor

February 23rd, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

Why does President Barack Obama strike so many voters as an elitist?  Because he is, by style and temperament, an “NPR Democrat.” He’s smart, cool and rational — “All Things Considered.” Conservatives do not consider all things. They consider only what they damn well want to consider. Sarah Palin got off a zinger when she told the tea party convention, “We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern.”

Ouch.

Obama is a prince of the meritocracy — brilliant, high-achieving, elite-educated and multicultural. He has a deep confidence in rational problem solving. If you lay out all the facts, reasonable people can come to agreement. That’s what he’s hoping will happen at the health care summit this week.

But politics is not always about rationality. “Facts are stupid things,” Ronald Reagan once said, in what was assumed to be a misstatement. Or was it?

Obama’s elitist temperament sometimes surfaces in unguarded moments, as it did during the 2008 campaign, when he let slip a comment about economically hard-pressed small-town voters who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”

Elitists can do well in American politics — when times are good. Their message is, “Trust us. We know what we’re doing.” The most elitist figure in politics today is New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg thrived during the past decade, when things were going well — booming economy, falling crime rate, the era of “Sex in the City.” But he defied public opinion by browbeating the City Council into allowing him to run for a third term after the voters twice rejected the idea. He spent more than $100 million on his third-term campaign. And nearly lost.

Obama is the latest in a long line of NPR Democrats. It goes back to Adlai Stevenson. During his 1956 presidential campaign, a woman reportedly called out to Stevenson, “You have the vote of every thinking person!” Stevenson allegedly replied, “That’s not enough, madam. We need a majority.”

The line continued through Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley. All enthralled educated, high-minded, upper-middle-class voters. None received much support in Democratic primaries from African-American voters.

They all had to compete with populist Democrats, such as Estes Kefauver, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton. The populists tended to carry older Democrats, union members, working-class voters, Catholics and minorities — the same Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008.

With one exception — African-Americans. Black Democrats were initially divided between Clinton and Obama, but they rallied to support Obama once it became clear that he could get white votes.

In the 2008 primaries, Obama eked out a narrow victory by putting together a coalition of NPR voters and African-Americans. Clinton was the populist. She got off a memorable put-down of Obama in Rhode Island: “Now I can stand here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’ Maybe I have just lived a little too long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.”

Guess what? It’s gotten harder. Obama’s opponents treat him with contempt. Tea party activists have laid out a path of defiance.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in 1532 that it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved. Obama has not yet established the fear factor: Defy me, and you will pay a price.

Every president needs to inspire fear. Harry Truman did it when he fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. John F. Kennedy did it when he stood up to U.S. Steel. Ronald Reagan did it when he confronted the air traffic controllers. Bill Clinton did it when he faced down Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown.

Obama is the least populist president since Woodrow Wilson — a high-minded, former Ivy League university president who believed in the power of rational persuasion.

When Glenn Beck addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, he mocked Wilson. Beck compared Obama’s campaign for health care reform to Wilson’s whistle-stop tour to promote the League of Nations. “I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me,” Beck told the delegates, who booed in agreement.

It was a cue for elitists to tremble.

Bill Schneider is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.