David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.
Peggy Noonan once wrote that Ronald Reagan had the mannerisms of a “happy working-class guy from his generation.” On the first night of the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama presented herself and her husband as happy people from working class families from their generation--the youngest baby boomers who came of age long after the turmoil of the 1960s.
By the time the convention is over, the speakers will have used the phrase “middle class” much more than “working class.” But, last night, Michelle Obama used the phrase “working class” at least once, when she said Barack Obama “was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did.” Earlier, she’d described her father as “a blue-collar city worker” and mentioned that her mother had stayed at home to raise her and her brother, Craig Robinson, now the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State.
Michelle Obama’s emphasis on her blue-collar roots served several purposes. It inoculates her and her husband against the Republican attacks that they’re out-of-touch elitists, in addition to Barack being a secret Muslim, Michelle being “bitter,” and both being anti-American radicals. By revealing her roots in the black working class--and rooting Barack Obama implicitly in the white working class--she refutes right-wing populist attacks that the Obamas look down on working Americans.
Recalling their working-class roots does more than play defense--as Coach Robinson might say, they’re playing offense, too. Obama’s populist appeal is strengthened by the fact that he was raised by a single mother as well as by middle American grandparents, that he studied hard and worked harder for everything he has, that he turned down lucrative jobs on Wall Street to organize jobless steelworkers, and that he married a woman from a working class family.
But, like all authentic populisms, the Obama’s appeals rest on pride, not pity. The stories Michelle Obama told--of her dad taking an hour to get dressed because he suffered from MS, of steelworkers struggling to find new jobs, and of day shift workers kissing their kids goodbye before they went to work the nightshift, too--describe people finding dignity and even joy in difficult circumstances. Implicitly, she dispelled not only the slur that she herself is bitter, but also the memory of her husband’s controversial remarks that some working class Americans are bitter.
Ironically, the last presidential nominee who had to remind the voters that he was raised by a single mom and working class grandparents was Bill Clinton in 1992. Even after he clinched the nomination, surveys showed that many voters assumed he was one more upper middle class ‘60s radical turned careerist. At the 1992 convention, this view was dispelled by the video, “The Man from Hope.” Sixteen years later, Michelle Obama reminded Americans that she and her husband grew up with pride and hope and their share of joy. No doubt, Joe Biden will make similar points about his upbringing. They understand--as Noonan and Reagan did--that working Americans won’t vote for the party of pity.
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