Here is a fact: Barack Obama has trouble generating enthusiasm among white working class voters. That’s not because they are white. He would have had trouble winning support among black working class voters if they had been unable to identify with him because he was black. He has trouble with working class voters because he appears to them as coming from a different world, a different realm of experience, a different class, if you like. And that’s because he does.
I have recently read several stories about Obama that treat these difficulties as if they were paradoxical. The latest is from The Washington Post. “Despite his roots,” the article is headlined, “Obama struggles to show he’s connected to middle class.” And the story—which seems to use middle class, working class, and blue collar interchangeably—describes his supposedly non-elitist roots as follows: “He turned down high-paying jobs after graduating from Harvard Law School and became a community organizer, compelled by the experience of growing up with a single mother who sometimes lived on food stamps. He married a woman from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago, and they rented a walk-up condominium in Hyde Park.”
The first thing to note about this description is that, like many accounts I have read of Obama’s life, it gets its facts wrong. He didn’t become a community organizer after graduating from Harvard Law School, but after graduating from Columbia. He left community organizing to attend Harvard Law School. After graduating from law school, he joined a prestigious Chicago law firm with offices just off Michigan Avenue. In 1991, he began teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He was chair of a Chicago branch of the Annenberg Foundation. Obama’s wife, who admittedly did grow up working-class, nevertheless graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School. And Hyde Park is a pricey upper-middle-class section of Chicago.
The second thing to note is something about class in America. By Marx’s definition, what we have in America, and in other developed capitalist countries, is a large, diversified working class that ranges from low-paid laborers and clerks to engineers and teachers, all of whom work for someone else, and cannot claim to own or control the means of production. But even if one accepts this account of the working class, there can be enormous social divisions between parts of it. Race and income are important, of course, but so is function, which separates people who perform routine or menial or manual tasks from people who produce ideas and complex services. College professors do not always make more money than electricians; but they live in a different world. In census terms, it is the world of professionals compared to that of operatives, laborers, clerical workers, and technicians.
Obama’s parents were professionals—his mother was an anthropology PhD and his father was a Harvard-trained economist. How much money they made was immaterial. His grandmother, who raised him in Hawaii, was a bank vice-president. He went to a fancy private school and to prestigious colleges (Occidental and Columbia) that turn out professionals and managers. He clearly was not obsessed with making money, but with performing a public service—yet that doesn’t distinguish him from other professionals or other Columbia graduates. It does distinguish him from a working- or middle-class American for whom being a civil rights lawyer or professor or politician is at best a passing fantasy.
It is admirable that Obama spent three years after graduating as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, but many graduates of elite colleges spend several years after college doing something unusual, before returning to graduate school or settling into a profession. Some travel around the world; some join the Peace Corps; some try to write novels. In the days of Theodore Roosevelt or George H.W. Bush, some became cowboys or oil wildcatters. It’s a tradition that goes back over a century. It’s called “sowing your wild oats.” Afterwards, they usually return to more sober and sedate occupations appropriate to their social background and education. That’s what Obama did. As I wrote of his community organizing period, he became weary of the life of the community organizer. He doubted he was accomplishing much, and decided to go to law school. He didn’t choose to go to Kent College of Law or John Marshall Law School—schools where he could have retained his ties with working class Chicago—but to Harvard Law School.
Once out of law school, Obama lived and worked over the next decade in a grey area between the very upper reaches of professional America and the country’s managers, owners, and rulers. He didn’t just have access to more money and live differently from ordinary Americans; he possessed power and authority that they didn’t have. He was of a different world, even if as a politician he would occasionally visit theirs.
There is no paradox, therefore, in Obama’s distance from white working class voters. What would be unusual is if he were able to echo their concerns in a deeply moving rather than in a somewhat mechanical way. Yes, there have been some gifted politicians of an upper class or professional background who have been able to do so. Some, like Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, or Ronald Reagan, could draw upon their working class childhoods; others, like Franklin Roosevelt or Edward Kennedy, could evince a kind of upper-class paternalism. This made them great politicians. It didn’t necessarily make them great men or great Americans. Barack Obama is, by any fair measure, a great American, and he could turn out to be a great president. But he is not yet a great politician. He has not been able to transcend the political limits of his own social background. And that has been one of his problems as he attempts to extricate America from the mess he inherited.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.