Elitism and snobbery: Obama, electability and the backyard barbeque factor

Update 4/12/08: Click to read this NY Times article and Is Obama a snob? on CHB, and reconsider the following. We had three glimpses into Obama’s personality two weeks ago, and now a fourth, which may convey the impression to some that he’s a prissy intellectual (and now an elitist). Prissy intellectuals (and those perceived as elitists) from Adlai Stevenson to Michael Dukakis don’t become president.

If Hillary Clinton, who no doubt is as much an intellectual as Obama, convinces enough blue collar voters he’s an elitist, and worse, a snob, and he runs against McCain with his war hero and regular guy image, she could be handing the election to a Republican.

Even George McGovern, a World War II B-24 bomber pilot with 35 missions, couldn’t overcome his image as a Ph.D. history professor.

It’s been widely reported that John Edwards hasn’t supported Obama because he came across as "glib and aloof" talking to him when, out of money, he had to withdraw. And then there was the spectacle of his bowling. Forget the score. Who bowls wearing a tie? Finally, at a famous chocolate factory, he insulted the cooks when he fussed about his waistline.

Of course being a prissy intellectual doesn’t preclude someone from being an excellent world leader. But they just don’t get elected in modern America where candidates come into everyone’s home from via television and YouTube.

To be clear, I am using the Cambridge Dictionary defintion of prissy: "always behaving and dressing in a way that is considered correct and that does not shock."

Hillary Clinton has taken a crash course in becoming everywoman. Sure, she still often comes across as stilted in unguarded moments, and rehearsed in her scripted attempts to appear spontaneous.

But she’s improving. Kudos to her acting coaches.

Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama have the "smart" credentials that John McCain lacks, but they aren’t about to bring up a former POW’s Naval Academy standing in the general election. But they will have to run against someone who, like George W. Bush, many voters can see inviting to a backyard barbeque.

While you may want to take with a grain of salt anecdotes from those who have interacted with Hillary socially, or when she isn’t "on". By many accounts she’s personally an easy going and warm person who doesn’t come across as if she’s intellectually superior, (added) at least not among people who she thinks knew the difference between a minaret and a minuet on their SATs. 

If this is an integral part of her personality which tends to be secondary to her driving ambition and go for the jugular competitive instincts, her coaches will use this to help her to "humanize” her public persona.

Barak Obama emerged as a public figure being perceived as a "regular guy" despite his stellar academic achievements. It could be argued that this perception was a major factor in why he won so many primaries.

This was, it seemed, a beer and burgers guy who just happens to wear a suit. Like George Bush, and unlike John Kerry, many people could see being comfortable with him at a backyard barbeque.

Now he seems more like a professor at a faculty party at Harvard sipping pinot noir and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres.

By and large we’re a burgers and fries, frayed jeans and t-shirt country. The closest most of us get to eating canapes is eating pigs in blankets at funerals.

Americans want to elect smart presidents. But they don’t want to elect presidents who seem to be elitists and smarty-pants.


  1. knockknock

    Today I watched Senator O. in a Q&A at West Chester U, just outside of Philly. He’s a combination of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant and Frederick Douglass, with a soupçon of Abe Lincoln.

    We need a president who can command the respect of this country and of all the world. I can see Barack Obama in sweats, or jeans, or a tuxedo. Doesn’t matter. His personality and intellect shines through.

    I’ve been thoroughly Baracked.

    We haven’t had a real leader since, er, since, um, well, in a very long time. I think Barack Obama is the one.

  2. Bluesman2007

    Good god man. If we can’t elect someone to the presidency because he’s watching his weight in a chocolate factory or isn’t a great bowler, we’re decidedly in deeper shit than I thought.

  3. Hal Brown

    Bluesman2007 –

    Can we elect a person to the presidency despite the fact he may be watching weight or can’t bowl (or refuses to take off his tie soley for the audience)? For that matter, can we elect a person to the presidency because there are swing voters who thinks she’s bitchy?

    In this image driven society where style often triumphs over substance, we may not be able to.

    In a close election those who are thoughtful voters can be at the mercy of those who vote the same way they choose a product that looks good or makes them feel good but ranks at the bottom of the Consumer’s Reports reliablity list.

  4. OldandSlow

    Bubba and Archie Bunker votes are the key to winning in the American heartland. Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania will be an uphill challenge for Barack.

    Unlike Barack, Hillary’s Rocky Balboa performance in front of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO was classic Clintonesque. It was disingenuous, but the style factor was on the money.

    Barack Obama may survive being geeky, if enough voters wise up about being pandered to by shameless political chameleons.

    Andrew in Austin, TX

  5. old_curmudgeon


    Talking about bbq – the reason I think Bush likes bbqs over black tie is because at a bbq there’s usually a lot of smoke. Hickory smoke masks the stench of carnage and putrescence, the death that follows Bush wherever he goes. Cheaper than cologne or honesty and integrity.

    But, that’s just this old curmudgeon’s opinion…

  6. CheckerboardStrangler

    And…at least at a BBQ Bush doesn’t have to worry about not knowing which fork to use, and there won’t be any hubbub if he gives an unsolicited shoulder massage to Arnold the Pig.

  7. ekaton

    “the reason I think Bush likes bbqs over black tie is because at a bbq there’s usually a lot of smoke. Hickory smoke masks the stench of carnage and putrescence, the death that follows Bush wherever he goes. Cheaper than cologne or honesty and integrity.”

    CLASSIC. Awesome piece of writing! To be memorized and quoted.

    — Kent Shaw

  8. markij1027

    I want to say simply that I thought Hal Brown’s article was excellent food for thought and my comments had been an accord with UhhhDudes sentiments (“None of them really had anything in common with the average American. What all of them had was a vision for our country and an ability to lead decisively in times of crisis.”)and not a denouement of anything in the article.

    Barack Obama has been able to use this era’s communication network the same way Kennedy used TV and we have to concede he has excelled in presentation. One man’s apples are another man’s oranges and my point is that despite the political gerrymandering, second-guessing and nitpicking that goes with public exposure we have the phenomenon of a man who has overcome the status quo to exceed all of our expectations – in spite of. I find this both exciting and refreshing.
    Queen D

  9. mrtshw

    Prissy Trumps Moron

    I believe Dubya has forever cured our preference for idiots over prissy.

  10. sherry

    Never under estimate America’s penchant for amnesia.
    Obama is running as a uniter. Sound familar?

  11. SEAL

    Sherry asks: Obama is running as a uniter. Sound familar?

    Sure does. Every presidential candidate in history has used it.

  12. Dr.D

    Hey Seal,Sorry about missing your query about Obama on the thread last week.You wanted to know where my unfavorable opinion of our current 3 remaining candidates came from,my opinion of Obama in particular,correct?
    O.K. Here goes: Obama has a guy named Zbigniew Brzizinski as one of his main policy advisors to his campaign,Zbig is a prominent member of the Council on Foreign Relations.By the same token,Hillary has Madeline Albright and McCain has Henry Kissinger serving in the same capacity.In my opinion,the CFR is an evil and treasonous organization that is dedicated to the formation of a single world government,and the subsequent destruction of the soveriegnty of the United States.Don’t believe me?Google any of these people in conjunction with CFR and you will see for yourself.
    Sorry for the delay in my answer. Ed

  13. SEAL

    The thing about strong willed committed people is that they cannot hide who they are no matter how they dress or what they do. The real them just comes busting through. The harder they try to act out a role the worse it gets and they come off as phony. Therefore, they shouldn’t try it.

    But they can overcome the prissy image by installing Barak in common every day situations like catching him changing the oil in his car on Sunday afternoon just like anyone else. He could use the annalogy of the auto for something he wants to do with government. Now you have a 30 second TV ad that shows Obama to be just like you and me. No acting required.

    People vote for the person they feel comfortable with and trust the most. They want think of them as a normal person that is really smart.

  14. Dr.D

    Could that be how we ended up with GWB? The guy that everybody wanted to hang out with at the local bar? Ed

  15. SEAL

    Thanx Dr.D. I understand your concern but Barak would be a fool not to maintain a connection to the CFR. How else could he know what they were up to?

  16. Dr.D

    Au contrere frierre,I believe that the CFR connection,along with all of the favorable press that he has received(yes,even with the Rev.Wright business)is almost incontravertible evidence that HE is the CFR’s choice.Naivete’can kill us,let us not take that chance. Ed

  17. Hal Brown

    Rove interview in GQ HERE

    Even though we know who owns his soul and where he’ll be spending eternity what ROVE says about Obama goes along with what I wrote. His comments (below) about Obama not doing his homework and being arrogant considering who his boss used to be ought to be tongue in cheek. I doubt they were. The following quotes are freebees that Obama might want to consider from a recognized political genius:

    Here’s ROVE:

    There are Democrats, particularly blue-collar Democrats, who defect
    to McCain because they see McCain as a patriotic figure and they see
    Obama as an elitist who’s looking down his nose at ‘em. Which he is.

    Obama is coolly detached and very arrogant. I think he’s very
    smart and knows he’s smart, but as a result doesn’t do his homework.

    If what Rove means by homework is studying up on when to take his tie off and when to sample chocolate, then he may be right.

    I don’t care if Obama is arrogant, he has the credentials to be that way, though I don’t think he is. I do think he has a low tolerance for numbskulls. Unfortunately what I’ve been trying to get across is that he’ll loose the considerable numbskull vote unless he appears to take their numbskullness seriously.


  18. sherry

    I don’t see Joe six-pack going for Obama. Never underestimate the democrats penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
    No one liked it when Hill said to Richardson through clinched teeth that Obama can’t win. I guess the truth really hurts sometimes.
    I can just see the hand wringing when the 527’s unload on Obama.
    Kerry’s swiftboating wasn’t fair, but it swayed the vote. Yeah, Kerry was an empty suit. I supported him in the desperate hope to change the dialog in Washington. He would have doubtless been a one termer had he won. Obama won’t make it that far.
    The man is so arrogant he will blame race rather than the other thousand or so reasons there are not to vote for him

  19. UhhhDude

    Yes, I’m sure that the contemporary media would label FDR as a smarty-pants intellectual, were he running today. Or James Madison, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. And John F. Kennedy as well. All of these presidents were graduates of our finer East Coast universities (please correct me if I’m wrong). All were raised in wealthy families. None of them really had anything in common with the average American. What all of them had was a vision for our country and an ability to lead decisively in times of crisis.

    Our “burgers and fries, frayed jeans and t-shirt” mentality is adversely affecting the way we view our presidential candidates. Our collective lack of knowledge of our own history works to our detriment as well.

    And to be quite honest, I don’t want to sit down and have a beer with our next president. I just want him or her to be able to lead us through the tough times with able and effective leadership. We’ve had the “beer” president; I could use a “pinot noir” president right about now.

    “All politics is local.” –Ernesto Medrano

  20. ekaton

    “Our collective lack of knowledge of our own history works to our detriment as well.”

    “A Peoples’ History of The United States” by Howard Zinn should be required reading for every high school freshman. This will never occur as it flies in the face of the myth propogated by our fascist masters in Washington.

    — Kent Shaw

  21. Hal Brown


    Good to have you posting on my column.

    The difference between all the "Ivy League type" presidents you refer to and those running in recent times is how the media has changed. With 24 hours cable news and the Internet images have become far more important.

    Had John F. Kennedy run against someone who looked better on black and white TV than Nixon he might have lost.

    For that matter, who knows if any of the greatest of the great presidents would have ever become president if there were televised debates and none-stop TV ads.


  22. markij1027

    I totally concur with UhhDude’s assessment in reference to a “pinot noir” president, if that’s what it takes. The interesting thing is that Barack Obama has been touted as being “articulate”, “intelligent”, “well-educated”, etc. as if this is an amazing accomplishment for a black man. If he were less erudite we’d be damning him for bringing the ghetto into politics.

    The simple fact is that I don’t need a leader who wouldn’t invite me to the barbecue under any circumstances. I want a leader who can go toe to toe with anyone on any level.

    The values that I see in Obama center around an abiding sense of justice, family, community and economic inclusion. He might be well educated, but he’s been around, which is more than I can say for many others who’ve reached his position. It is courageous if not downright crazy to run for public office in this country because you will be literally nitpicked to death by those who have a vested interest in doing so.

    Somehow a republican named George Bush ascended to the throne, despite all of his faults and peculiarities. I believe the American public is now a little more than ready to embrace an elitist “Kennedyesque” leader after the reign of Bushdom. I certainly am.

    Queen Diva
    If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
    James Madison

  23. Hal Brown

    I hope nobody is getting the idea I don’t support Obama wholeheartedly. I do.

    I don’t want to see him loose because he didn’t take his tie off and slam a few gutter balls halfway down the bowling lane like a manly man who just happened not to know how to bowl, or didn’t shove a slab of chocolate cake into his mouth.

    People vote for inane reasons having nothing to do with either their personal best interest or the interest of the country.

    Kennedy got elected even though there were pictures of him enjoying the rich man’s liesure of sailing. John Kerry went wind surfing and without the aura and charisma of JFK it reinforced the NASCAR voters that he was too effete to be president.

    I don’t think we will ever have an election where the candidates don’t have to take acting lessons… unless they happen to be another Ronald Reagan.

  24. adamrussell

    I think we have had enough arrogant macho in the white house. It is time for a change.

    I will say this for how people vote though – size matters. A tall candidate has an advantage.

  25. JudyB

    Hal I thoroughly enjoyed your column as I always. It was refreshing to read that someone can support a candidate without dragging his opponents thru the mud.
    However, I feel sure that when the general election gets underway,that Obama will be UNFAIRLY dragged thru the mud and accused of everything but murder by someone in the opposition camp. Again, cudos to you!

  26. sherry

    Clearly you haven’t read Hal’s column on Hillary’s psychological issues when she didn’t leave her husband.

  27. Hal Brown

    I’ve reread my column to see why readers seem to think I am being critical of Obama the potential president, a man I consider eminently qualified. I can’t figure it out unless I’m totally thick headed or some of you didn’t read carefully.

    I am going to change the title from "Will Obama’s smarty-pants persona doom him" to "Obama, electability and the backyard barbeque factor" and see if that helps.

    I am writing about how he’s going to get elected. Like Adam Russell notes above, regarding how people vote, size matters and tall candidates have an advantage. Height, looks, the old likability factor.

    Unless a candidate is a natural and can intuit what people around him want him to be, he or she needs an acting coach. They must learn to make some people just want to vote for them because, well, they seem like such nice people.

    Readers of Capitol Hill Blue could care less about the barbeque factor, but combined with Karl Rove’s strategy, it got us two terms of Bush.

  28. UhhhDude

    We do know that both FDR and JFK were skilled manipulators of the media of the day (FDR’s Fireside Chats and JFK remembering to use makeup on TV). Yet, in spite of that, we got Nixon for a term-and-a-half anyway.

    Reagan’s campaign was the first to enhance the likability factor. Being field-tested in the battlegrounds of Hollywood made him the choice over Carter and Mondale. Never mind that he may have been missing a couple of marbles.

    In most cases since then, the Democrats have struggled to present a candidate that did not fail the “cool” test (see: Dukakis in a tank, Kerry windsurfing).

    Bill Clinton playing sax on late night TV made him much cooler than doddering Bush I and Bob Dole.

    To speak to your original point, all this becomes a necessity in American politics because the general public (and the media, by extension) pick candidates they way they used to pick their high school class president.

    The dweeby types with the horn-rimmed glasses were passed over in favor of the smiling, handsome airhead whose primary skill was knowing how to work the room.

    In the last two elections, Gore and Kerry were turned into dweebs, courtesy of Karl Rove (himself dweeby in appearance).

    The sad thing? Not once did anything above reference a candidate’s policy or position.

    “All politics is local.” –Ernesto Medrano

  29. Hal Brown

    UhhhDude, you got my point.

    Let’s not forget Nixon first won against Hubert Humphrey, and then George McGovern. Humphrey, "the happy warrior" was, well, Hubert. I don’t think any acting coach could have helped him.

    McGovern, despite being a B-24 bomber pilot with 35 missions to his credit, also had a divinity degree and a Ph.D. in history. An acting coach might have been able to help him tone down the intellectual image and somehow play up the fact that he was a true warrior who as a bomber pilot was responsible for the lives of his nine crew members, while Nixon only served in the Naval Reserve.

    Nixon, without a Karl Rove and the Swift Boat Slimers to make a combat vet who risked his life seem like a dweeb, might have lost.