09/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Achilles Heel: The Pomposity Perception

In their "Can Obama Win Over Those Voters Who Find Him Pompous?" David Lightman and Margaret Talev raise a hard-to-swallow question.

Pomposity is not easily accepted or addressed. And in the case of Barack Obama, pomposity can also be a code word for race. As can this year's big E word -- elitism.

Penni Pier, a rhetoric expert at Iowa's Wartburg College, says: ...

"You can't come out and say, 'I'm uncomfortable with a black man as president,' but it's entirely possible that there's a segment of the population that feels that way," she said.

Kristine Cole, an Obama supporter from Raleigh, N.C., agreed. Elitism, she said, "is code for the N-word. . . . If he's a white guy no one's saying he's elitist; he's doing what everybody else is doing."

McCain backers and undecided voters dispute that point.

"He's just not my kind of candidate. Certainly some of it is inexperience, but some is attitude," said Sally Whittaker, a Boulder, Colo., clothing store manager.

"I get a pompous vibe from him, and I don't like that."

Obama has no easy way to overcome the perception.

"I don't know that he can. It may be part and parcel of him," said Robert Friedenberg, a professor of communication at Miami University of Ohio.

Any campaign must deal with perceptions. McCain will fight to not be perceived as too old or mentally challenged. Obama will never be able to mute the fact that he is smart, that he thinks on his feet, that he is Harvard Law Review material, or that he strikes others as being different. He has written two best-sellers about the difference, after all.

But Obama can take to heart the elements of the pomposity rap just as an athlete will take advice from a sage coach about conditioning.

Something about Barack Obama's manner bothers Margaret Cowan.

"There's something egotistical about him," the Sheridan, Colo., retiree said. "It's the way he struts around."

Many swing voters here and throughout the country consider the presumptive Democratic nominee distant, pompous, arrogant, even elitist.

"It's a big issue that he needs to address," said Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Obama has Ivy League degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities. He's extraordinarily articulate and exudes self-confidence. Those credentials and qualities combine to strike some people as arrogant.

He counters by reminding voters that he was raised by a single mother of modest means and worked as a Chicago community organizer. Those aren't elitist roots.

Not to mention that presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, also could be tagged as having an elitist background.

This week we have certainly seen an effective push back, with McCain's monstrous houses gaffe.

Still, Obama can do things like shorten sentences, stop referring to Americans in the third person in stump speeches and drill down to applause-evoking policy prescriptions of no more than five or ten words.

(He can have his speechwriters carefully go through his speech videos, find the applause lines and dispense with the yawn lines. People are crying out for an easy-to-understand, brief summary of what Obama cares about and stands for. We all know it. But we have not tamped it down.)

The issue has to do with Democrats in general.

David Campt, a San Francisco-based consultant on racial diversity, saw Obama inheriting a problem that's often dogged Democrats since they nominated Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952.

"The party's candidates tend to have an intellectual way of expressing their views," often with nuance and detail. "That gets portrayed as effete and elitist. People like simplicity," Campt said.

"There's a little bit of Kerry in Obama in that he seems aloof and not as engaged as McCain," said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University.

Just in case you think this is a call for a makeover, perish the thought.

The elitist perception, he pointed out, doesn't automatically doom a candidate. "We have had presidents who were elitist," he said, notably Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

In fact, history suggests that changing one's persona to suit the political climate usually winds up worsening the image problem.

The usually blue-suited Al Gore tried wearing more earth tones in 1999 as he launched his White House bid. Ivy Leaguer George H. W. Bush kept "Poppy's pork rinds" on his Oval Office desk. Obama went bowling during April's Pennsylvania primary campaign, and rolled a 37.

The conclusion reads like something Obama is already doing and which will doubtless get refined during the coming week in Denver.

Middlebury's Davis suggested that Obama should focus on other matters.

Clinton did well in late spring primaries by talking about health care and jobs, Davis said, so "Obama needs to offer as many specifics as possible. Talk about home foreclosures, for instance, or health care."

Obama's strategists accept that point.

"One of our biggest battle tools is that Barack Obama and John McCain have completely different approaches to energy, the economy, foreign policy," campaign spokeswoman Psaki said.

That makes sense to some voters.

"Obama needs to show how he's something different and McCain is more of the same," said Tyler Houghton, a University of Colorado student.

Elizabeth Bennett, a Littleton, Colo., teacher, agreed.

"I want new ideas. I want to hear about a new way of doing business," she said. "I want that feeling of optimism."