THE BLOG
01/20/2008 11:28 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Grumpy Old Men

Seventy-eight year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel calls him "stupid," BET mogul Robert Johnson, 62, compares him to Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (not a good thing, intimates Johnson), Rep John Lewis, 68, calls him "no Martin Luther King Jr," and former ambassador Andrew Young, 76, insists that "Bill [Clinton] is every bit as black as Barack." Recent sexagenarian Bill himself has lit into him ferociously half a dozen times this year.

These grumpy old men's target, Barack Obama, would at first seem an unlikely candidate for their wrath: at the very least he is a likeable, polite, even-tempered and accomplished senator who has not had a bad word to say about any of his attackers. The most obvious cause of the assault is, of course, that all five men are supporters of Hillary Clinton and are invested in her success (very emotionally so in the case of Bill, and very politically so in the case of Rangel).

But the bitterness of the tone and the content of the offensive point to deeper roots: could it be that these men, highly successful in their fields against scarring odds, resent the arriviste Obama? The biracial, binational product of 1970s Hawaii has hardly bowed at the altar of Clintonism, and certainly not paid sufficient homage to Rangel, the dean-of-the-New-York-congressional-delegation and a fervent power-broker whose brokering will have gone awry if Obama wins (Rangel is perhaps best known for taking credit for Hillary's successful New York Senate run). It may also be that he hasn't shown all these men the deference they expect from an upstart.

Lewis, Young and Johnson would seem to have less to lose, except, perhaps, their pride: for these pioneers, it may be embarrassing to have backed so publicly and so early an uber-establishment candidate such as Clinton over the promising (and only) black Senator who is making such a strong bid for the presidency. This is especially true now, when both men's African-American political and business bases are so ardently embracing Obama. Lewis explains his support because the Clintons are "family;" the civil-rights hero's loyalty is remarkable, but surely at some point the argument becomes circular, and the people in power remain in power until the end of time because they have a paternalistic hold on our allegiance. Worse: two terms of George W. Bush's unerring loyalty to those loyal to him yielded the Katrina catastrophe, a lawless Attorney General's office, a criminal war fought to the bitter end, among many horrors. How can one not come to the conclusion that loyalty in politics, if not in real life, is grossly overrated?

Obama, in his post-racial zeal, can hardly complain that he doesn't receive the full backing of his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues and other black leaders. But on the issues alone, he would seem a better fit: for instance, few groups have been more vocal than members of the CBC in their opposition to the Iraq war championed by Clinton. It is also hard to argue that she has a better grasp of issues specifically affecting many African-Americans than Obama does: if nothing else, he spent years working the streets of Chicago's South Side (to paraphrase Johnson, we know what Clinton was doing in her youth: organizing young Goldwater Republicans in suburban Park Ridge,IL, and at Wellesley as president of the College Republicans).

Obama has garnered the support of important African-American political veterans (John Conyers perhaps most prominently, but also Jesse Jackson, Barbara Lee, etc), while others are still on the sidelines (Maxine Waters, uncharacteristically, Jim Clyburn). Among younger activists and elected officials, it's a blow-out for Obama: they are unlikely to feel any loyalty to the Clintons, are engaged by a post-baby-boom candidate and feel more in sync with him on the issues. For politicians, the generational gap has come about because the younger generation has turned away from the Clintons, not thanks to older leaders' unanimous support of Hillary. The public anger expressed by her close circle of elders will only further engage young political activists in favor of Obama, no matter how contrite Rangel and Johnson"s apologies to Obama (the latter's bold lying about the whole matter didn't help either).

Among voters, the generational gap in support for Obama and Clinton dwarfs the gender gap according to a Pollster.com analysis. There are probably many reasons for this: people are more drawn to politicians closer to their age, older white voters may be less likely to vote for a black candidate, older voters are disproportionately female and may be more likely to remember the Clinton presidency fondly, etc.

The causes of the generation gap may be unclear, but its consequences matter greatly, as it is finally dawning on political advisers that the "echo boom" well understood by marketers applies to politics: the offspring of the baby boom form a big bulge of consumers and voters. And at some point, perhaps this year, they will actually make their way to the ballot box (they already did so in Iowa, where they overwhelmed the caucus sites). Even if younger voters participate in the same low proportion they usually do, their sheer numbers can create major change, not unlike the 1970s, when most of their boomer parents came of political age.

Many commentators have pooh-poohed Obama's de facto coalition of supporters: black voters, as always, seem barely to count (except in South Carolina, we have been told thousands of times, because they form half the primary electorate); young voters never vote (except in Iowa this year, we are told, but that was unusual); white men don't vote for Democrats. The truth is, of course, that these groups, who are disproportionately supporting Obama, are expected to constitute over 60% of Democratic voters according to a recent Diageo/Hotline poll. Of course, Clinton can win the nomination by doing extremely well among older white women (about a quarter of Democrats) and, it seems, Latinos (10%), at least on the West Coast, but that is not a more likely path to victory than Obama's. Particularly since she may not be able to count on these women unconditionally, as Obama"s win among female voters in Iowa demonstrated.

This dispiriting demographic segmentations obscure a more important fact: in every state that has voted so far, the more voters got to know Obama and focus on the race, the more votes he has received. So much has happened in the past month, politically, that it is hard to remember that he trailed Clinton by an (unweighted) average of 14% in CNN December polls in the early states. The result: he has won one state by 9%, and lost two by 3% and 6% (the latter, Nevada, possibly by less). These stunning gains have come about among all demographic groups surveyed, including older people.

With this in mind, the accelerated, bunched up primary process, culminating in the 22-state Feb 5 contests, is Clinton's best friend: if Obama's gains in early voting states are any indication, it is unlikely she could survive the closer scrutiny that comes with staggered voting, the Obama magic or the spite of the grumpy old men so intent on doing her a favor.