Obama as Jackie Robinson
Adam Serwer laments the fact that Barack and, particularly, Michelle Obama have to humanize themselves to the electorate and fight back against an elitist caricature.
[T]he Obamas are still fighting Jackie Robinson Syndrome, the reflexive double standards and often small, sometimes large, but always public humiliations that come from being the first black person to do something.
Ezra Klein thinks this “beautifully put” but thinks there’s more to this than race.
Rather, the campaign against Obama has metastasized into a variant of class warfare. It’s the resentment of the meritocracy. What the GOP realized was that Obama did come across different than the average American, but not so much because he was black as because he was effortless. The very set of supercharged talents and qualities that allowed Obama to levitate past the boundaries of race and class make him different than those who haven’t rocketed upward on the strength of their intelligence and charisma and charm. After all, if you’re a fumbling, struggling individual out in suburban Ohio, how can you believe that this guy who doesn’t look to have struggled a day in his life cares about your pathetic problems? Obama, in other words, is elite. As in “A group or class of persons enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.” Obama isn’t an economic elite, but he is a social and intellectual elite. And it’s that creeping sense that he’s different, that he’s better and knows it, that McCain is trying to exploit.
But that’s a time-honored tactic. Witness the campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, George H.W. Bush in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004. Or any seriously contested presidential primary, of either party, in my memory. Being “out of touch” with “regular Americans” is a political liability. Caring about “people like me” is good. Being elite is fine. Being elitist, not so much.
Getting back to Serwer’s quote, it marks the second time in recent days I’ve seen the Jackie Robinson comparison trotted out. A National Journal poll over the weekend, the results of which were released today, asked, “Who is Obama most like — John F. Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter or Colin Powell?”
It’s an insult to great achievers like Robinson, Powell, and Kennedy to mention Obama in the same breath. Obama’s got the youthful charisma and inexperience JFK brought to the White House, minus the war hero credit. That leaves, by default, Jimmy Carter, who was a decent, smart guy in way over his head.
Jackie Robinson was a demonstrably talented baseball player, denied access to the Major Leagues by dint of the skin color he was born with, who instantly became a top player once given a chance. Barack Obama has faced no such barriers, getting admitted to the finest schools in the country by virtue of his qualifications and then put on the fast track in academe, politics, publishing, and other pursuits through combination of extraordinary gifts, hard word, and, ironically, the color of his skin. While there’s no doubt that being “the first black” poses challenges, it comes with perks.
Regardless, he’s very young to be on the verge of a major party presidential nomination and has none of the usual resume entries one expects to see in one who got there so quickly. Bill Clinton was about the same age but had been governor of Arkansas for a dozen years. Kennedy was a war hero and Pulitzer Prize winner. Obama gives good speeches.
That said, comparisons only go so far. As I’ve written on numerous posts in recent months, we’ve had great presidents who seemed barely qualified for the job and lousy ones who had extraordinary preparation. It’s quite reasonable to look at Obama’s and McCain’s pasts as clues to their futures — they’re really the only clues we have, after all, aside from gut feelings about their personalities — but the presidency is sui generis and people surprise you.