Opinion: Obama Is The Wrong Kind of Snob

Is Barack Obama the wrong kind of snob to win this election?

Make no mistake, Obama is an elitist. But his brand of elitism is not based on money. It’s based on intellectual achievement. Obama has spent almost his entire adult life in the academic colony of Hyde Park, where such attitudes are part of the local culture. As a Hyde Park politician once said, “We don’t judge you by the color of your skin; we judge you by how many books you’ve read.”

For most of his career, Obama was a neighborhood big shot, despite the fact that he didn’t have a lot of money. He was the state senator, but he didn’t get that job by cultivating wealthy donors. He got it because the IVI-IPO endorsed him.

Obama has always taken the path of public service over the path of pursuing wealth. He left a job at a business magazine in New York to work as a community organizer. After Harvard Law School, he spurned an offer from Sidley & Austin to work in a small civil rights law firm.

“At every juncture in my life, I could have taken the path of least resistance but much higher pay,” he told me the first time I interviewed him. “Being the president of the Harvard Law Review is a big deal. The typical path for someone like myself is to clerk for the Supreme Court, and then basically you have your pick of any law firm in the country.”

When he was in the state senate, Obama lived in a condo, wore an overcoat with a torn lining, and drove a Dodge Neon back and forth from Springfield.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Obama isn’t giving his wealthy contributors the love they think they deserve. It’s just not like a Hyde Parker to be impressed with a rich person. (Or with anyone, really, except maybe a Nobel laureate.) First, we learned that Penny Pritzker is upset because she hasn’t been invited to Camp David. Now, according to Yahoo! News:

Most major political figures in both parties have grown adept at convincing donors with the net worth of King Midas that it is friendship–and not, God forbid, money–that has brought them together. Ryan himself flew to Las Vegas last week to pledge fealty to GOP super PAC impresario Sheldon Adelson. Bill Clinton, who embodies the gold standard in schmoozing with the wealthy, made a personal pitch to a VIP gathering of Democratic super PAC donors in New York last week along with David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager who is now on the White House payroll.

But Obama himself stubbornly resists the petty insincerities that are the coin of the realm when it comes to “donor maintenance,” a wonderful Clinton-era euphemism for events like White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers. (During the Clinton years, I recall a major donor, who had a penchant for displaying her cleavage, telling me in all sincerity, “The president respects my policy advice.”) In contrast, as [New Yorker reporter Jane] Mayer recounts, Obama couldn’t even be bothered to pose for pictures with his most devoted contributors during the 2009 White House Christmas and Hanukkah parties.

Mitt Romney, of course, loves money. He collects it, as both a hobby and a vocation.  So he loves schmoozing with rich donors. Rich folks know Romney is one of them. They share a common passion: money. That’s why Romney currently has a cash advantage of $62 million over Obama. While Romney sends his vice-presidential Boy Wonder to suck up to Sheldon Adelson, Obama’s latest campaign e-mail is asking supporters for five bucks.

“We’re getting outspent by wide margins in critical battleground states -- and what we do about that today could be the difference between winning and losing on November 6th,” he wrote. “So as we near one of the last fundraising deadlines of this campaign, I'm asking you to pitch in $5 or more right now.”

Five bucks! I’ve been hit up for more than five bucks by a stranded traveler outside a bus station. Obama was the most prolific fundraiser in presidential history in 2008, raising three-quarters of a billion dollars. He planned to raise a billion this year. He should get over his aversion to rich folks for the next two-and-a-half months, so he can help poor folks for the next four years.  

 This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.

Contact Us