ON DEADLINE: Obama walks arrogance line
By RON FOURNIER, Associated Press Writer
Mon Mar 17, 2008
Arrogance is a common vice in presidential politics. A person must be more than a little self-important to wake up one day and say, "I belong in the Oval Office."
But there's a line smart politicians don't cross — somewhere between "I'm qualified to be president" and "I'm born to be president." Wherever it lies, Barack Obama better watch his step.
He's bordering on arrogance.
The dictionary defines the word as an "offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride." Obama may not be offensive or overbearing, but he can be a bit too cocky for his own good.
The freshman senator told reporters in July that he would overcome Hillary Rodham Clinton's lead in the polls because "to know me is to love me."
A few months later, he said, "Every place is Barack Obama country once Barack Obama's been there."
True, there's a certain amount of tongue-in-cheekiness to such remarks — almost as if Obama doesn't want to take his adoring crowds and political ascent too seriously. He was surely kidding when he told supporters in January that by the time he was done speaking "a light will shine down from somewhere."
"It will light upon you," he continued. "You will experience an epiphany. And you will say to yourself, I have to vote for Barack. I have to do it."
But both Obama and his wife, Michelle, ooze a sense of entitlement.
"Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics," his wife said a few weeks ago, adding that Americans will get only one chance to elect him.
Obama's cool self-confidence got him into trouble in New Hampshire when he said Clinton was "likable enough," faint praise that grated on female votes who didn't appreciate him condescending to the former first lady.
Privately, aides and associates of Obama tell stories about a boss who can be aloof and ungracious. He holds firmly to views and doesn't like to be challenged, traits that President Bush packaged and sold under the "resolute" brand in the 2004 election. For Bush, those qualities proved to be dangerous in a time of war and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
If arrogance is a display of self-importance and superiority, Obama earns the pejorative every time he calls his pre-invasion opposition to the war in Iraq an act of courage.
While he deserves credit for forecasting the complications of war in 2002, Obama's opposition carried scant political risk because he was a little-known state lawmaker courting liberal voters in Illinois. In 2004, when denouncing the war and war-enabling Democrats would have jeopardized his prized speaking role at the Democratic National Convention, Obama ducked the issue.
It may be that he has just the right mix of confidence and humility to lead the nation (Obama likes to say, "I'm reminded every day that I'm not a perfect man"). But if the young senator wins the nomination, even the smallest trace of arrogance will be an issue with voters who still consider him a blank slate.
That may seem unfair to a candidate who's running against Clinton, the former first lady who is the model of overbearing pride. This is a woman, after all, who claims experience from her eight years as first lady but won't release her White House records; who trails Obama in delegates but deigned to suggest he'd be her running mate; and who has more baggage than Samsonite yet says Obama lacks "vetting."
But voters expect arrogance from Clinton and her husband, Bill. It's part of the package. It's a 90s-thing. The Clintons' utter self-absorption comes with a record of achievement and brass-knuckle passion that Obama cannot match — and that Democratic voters know could come in handy against GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain.
Voters won't cut Obama as much slack on the humility test because he's sold himself as something different. While rejecting the "me"-centric status quo and promising a new era of post-partisan reform, Obama has said the movement he has created is not about him; it's about what Americans can do together if their faith in government is restored.
The power of his message lies in its humility. As he told 7,000 supporters at a rally last month, "I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams."
Nobody expects Obama to be perfect. But he better never forget that he isn't.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.