24 July 2008

Obama vs. McCain: A New Poll Shows Americans Struggle to Identify With Values, Background

The Wall Street Journal has an article this morning analyzing voter unease with Barack Obama as compared with John McCain. The subtitle reads, "Poll Finds Background, Experience, Are Advantages for McCain."

Fairly enough, I suppose, the article points to results of a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicating that half of all voters are trying to figure out what kind of president Barack Obama would be. Only a quarter, says the Journal, are focused on what kind of president John McCain would be.

I leave conjecture to the reader. Of course, I think I already know what kind of president McCain would be, and I don't think so positively in that regard. But that's my bias.

My BS meter didn't go off until paragraph 4 of the Journal article:

The challenge that presents for Sen. Obama is illustrated by a second question. When voters were asked whether they could identify with the background and values of the two candidates, 58% said they could identify with Sen. McCain on that account, while 47% said the same of Sen. Obama. More than four in 10 said the Democratic contender doesn't have values and a background they can identify with.

Emphasis mine. It's true, I'm not exactly sure what Obama's values are, though I believe they revolve around freedom, democracy, and opportunity for all Americans, and also a core belief that America has nothing to fear from simply listening to global neighbors. Oh yeah--and something about hope. Where the WSJ/NBC News poll goes over the top, though, is in linking an understanding and ability to identify with Obama's values with an understanding and ability to identify with his background. The mixed-race child of a Kenyan and an American? A son left behind by his father and raised by his mother and grandparents? A Harvard educated lawyer? An inner city organizer? A professor of constitutional law? A best-selling author? A successful state lawmaker turned U.S. senator turned Democratic nominee for president?

When you do the math, it's amazing to me that only 4 in 10 responded that they could not identify with his background and values. Barack Obama is not an "average" American. The difference between this election and any that has come before is that the candidate is not afraid to admit this fact. Can you think of an "average" American candidate for president? Not in my lifetime. Probably not in yours. Right off the bat, the biggest factor separating presidential candidates from average Americans has to do with money. These people are wealthy. Members of the richest class in America. Millionaires. That alone presents a monumental dividing line between candidates and the average Americans they seek to represent.

What's more, how many Americans can really identify with John McCain's background? This is where the misnomer roots itself in unspoken ways. McCain is the child of a strict Navy upbringing, the imprisoned and tortured soldier, the decorated serviceman. Beyond that, he's a career politician married to an astonishingly wealthy heiress. He has a son serving in Iraq. One more thing: he's an old man who by his own admission doesn't use a computer. To be sure, I can't identify with McCain's background any more than I can with Obama's. But McCain is white, and that signals an instantaneous recognition, or suggestion of recognition, in the United States today. For the most superficial reason I can think of, John McCain fares better in this poll: his skin color affords him the advantage in America of not having to answer questions about his ethnic background.

This is how "background" becomes such a weighty word in this poll.

In Obama's case, rather than position himself as a prototypical, average American, he would challenge the country to see that "average" must no longer be linked with "American" in order to achieve representational democracy. He's saying that the American today is not average; the problems and challenges we face are not average; the catchall "average" leaves too many Americans of voting age on the outside looking in. The myth that a President Obama would shatter is that footage of a president raking brush on a Texas ranch and joshing around with reporters actually qualifies a son of wealth to represent himself as "average."

In this election season, Obama's bid has been characterized as a cultural campaign, a post-racial campaign, and a post-partisan campaign. The candidate has been much touted for leaving behind the old politics of Washington to usher in a new era of inclusion, thoughtfulness, and hope. I buy some of that and can leave some of it behind for the spin it is. But if there's one thing that Obama's successes have shown us thus far, it may be that Americans are ready for the first, post-average candidate in modern history.