When Barack Obama started running for president, he was widely described as arrogant for daring to take on the Clintons after just two years in the Senate, despite the fact that polling at the time showed him to be the only threat to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Eighteen-months later, we are told by the McCain campaign and its traditional media parrots that Obama is at risk of looking "presumptuous" for his recent trip abroad, even as he has registered a small but significant bounce in the polls upon his return, presumably for doing what most of us expect of a presidential candidate.
The man who slayed Democratic royalty, who has raised more money than any political campaign in US history, drawn record-breaking crowds in the US and abroad, who has been ahead of John McCain since widespread general election polling began four months ago, this man is presumptuous for thinking he has a good shot at becoming president and should therefore get to know his potential counterparts and visit the sites of US military activity?
Most candidates Obama's age will be charged sooner or later with youthful conceit for taking on their elders, no matter how guilty those elders are of mismanaging the country. It happened to some extent to Bill Clinton, and surely to others before him. However, it is hard not to see in the ongoing attitude towards this presidential frontrunner, just three months before the election, something more uncomfortable that is not simply a matter of age, but one of race.
Throughout the primary there was a growing sense of disbelief in the Clinton camp that this young'un (older than Bill was in 1991 when he started running, mind you) really thought he had a shot at this. Bill, in particular, showed little patience for Obama's "fairy tale" campaign, eventually going ballistic because, in his own version of "some of my best friends are," he did not understand that even he, whose office is in Harlem, may be condescending towards African-Americans, and towards this African-American in particular. Perhaps more perniciously, some long-time African-American political and business leaders joined in with some of the worst stereotyping of the campaign, seemingly upset at the upstart who dared to go where most of them had not.
Now McCain is recycling some version of this superciliousness, heavily aided by a traditional media still so easily scared into thinking it is not tough enough on Obama. McCain can hardly hide his rage at this uppity kid who thinks he can hobnob with world leaders just as he does -- who thinks he has more judgment than a septuagenerian war-mongering former prisoner of war. And who sees no reason to wait his turn when barely 1 in 10 Americans think the country is on the right track, thanks to his elders' enlightened leadership. In a weird echo of the Clinton attacks, McCain smirks his way through one sarcastic comment after another, his face twisted in hatred and disbelief. Not only is Obama "presumptuous," he also "doesn't understand." It is never clear what Obama doesn't understand since he actually has not gotten his facts or, so far, his analysis wrong, as opposed to McCain whose errors in fact and in judgment are so numerous as to make one wonder where he has been for the past 20 years (poring over Cold War era reports on Czechoslovakia? Hanging out at the Iraq-Pakistan border? Plotting to bomb-bomb-bomb bomb-bomb Iran?). McCain is the most arrogant of Senators (not a light charge), yet even by his standards the tone he adopts towards Obama is so densely patronizing that here too it is hard to dismiss it as purely a matter of age gap. McCain's joke of an economic advisor, Carly Fiorina, is now also laying it on thick: she is glad that Obama is consulting with experts. This from the woman who nearly ran a Fortune 100 company into the ground and whose candidate knows so little about economic issues after three decades in Congress that Fiorina is reduced to repeating that McCain "has been understanding [economic issues] for months."
That Obama is actually able to listen to facts, absorb them and analyze them should be a good thing. We assume that those skills came in handy throughout his life, not least at Harvard, where he graduated near top of his law school class. This, of course, now makes him an elitist, as he would not be expected by the old DC guard to possess any such competence (charisma perhaps, analytical ability no.) Both McCain (894th out of 899 at Annapolis) and George W. Bush revel in their under-achieving school days, as if this made these scions of hyper-privilege any closer to real people. This tactic clearly succeeded well enough for Bush to be elected president twice, and McCain to be nominated once. But there is a sense that American voters may not be taken in again and that they may actually enjoy as president someone who isn't an inbred moron or a senile fratboy.
Obama's partner in elitism, his wife Michelle, is in extreme tongue-biting mode. This is a shame, but it is inevitable, as she too is under the kind of scrutiny that would make Cindy McCain's face melt back into some approximation of reality. It is widely understood that Obama is more deserving of close examination than McCain because she is more actively involved in her husband's campaign than Cindy is. This of course is a lie: McCain has campaigned extensively for her husband and, were it not for her family fortune and her private jet, he wouldn't even have come close to being nominated. The truth is that Obama is expected to play a certain role: strong, angry, overbearing, and every one of her statements is demeaningly parsed in that light. If every word uttered by McCain were analyzed and reported to fit the stereotype of the rich, spoilt, husband-stealing white woman that she is, all would be fair. But instead, we get adoring glances, little examination of her actual role and an occasional hiccup about Michelle Obama's lack of patriotism.
What angers John McCain and bemuses many traditional observers is how unflappable Barack Obama remains in public, no matter how condescending the attacks. There is little doubt that the thick skin he grew over decades came in handy as he started to run for president. The past 18 months surely were not the first time Obama was baited for being black, for being white, for being Muslim, or for not being from "here," and it must be fascinating, although not unexpected, for him to see these patronizing attitudes resurface at this stage of his life. For the rest of us, what is fascinating is to witness how these old-school mindsets are backfiring on those who hold them, making them look less wise, more prejudiced, less fit to lead and altogether completely unappealing. And to witness that in America in 2008, it is perhaps not a bad thing not to know your place.