04/14/2008 01:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Snob-ama Is Not Just Out of Touch, He's From Another Planet"

This is how the Republicans are trying to define Barack Obama: Too Liberal, Too Out of Touch.

"I know what makes people there 'bitter.' It's slick-talking politicians who look down on their beliefs and values." Michael Goodwin wrote in Sunday's Daily News about his small town in Pennsylvania.

The well-circulated quotes from Huffington Post -- of Obama telling a closed, well-heeled fundraiser that people in small towns in Pennsylvania are bitter and cling to religion and guns out of frustration -- have created a dangerous firestorm.

This brouhaha exposes an existing political vulnerability -- the perception of an elitist Obama. He will be tagged as the Harvard-trained candidate of the young and educated. The Republicans managed to stick a similarly crippling perception on the candidacies of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.

And the Democrats didn't stand a chance.

The Democrats have not lost elections because they are out of step with the white working class Catholic vote -- the key swing vote -- on economic or foreign policy issues... they have lost because of cultural issues -- "God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag."

And this is going to be a real problem for Barack Obama. Not so much in the nomination struggle, but in the general election.

"It's arrogance on steroids, fueled by a secular elitist view of Middle America as filled with ignorant red-necks," wrote Goodwin. Come November, the Republicans are going to cram this perception of Obama down the throats of voters.

Remember, the only Democrats who have been elected president since John Kennedy have been southern moderates.

There is nothing wrong with what Obama said. It's all true and very perceptive. It follows a Marxist economic view that religious faith is rooted in economic anxiety. Obama is not a Marxist. There is a lot of anger and bitterness in small town America today. But when you are running for President you can't say this kind of stuff.

A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, as Michael Kinsley wrote in the Guardian 16 years ago. You can't be a coolly academic political sociologist. In the heat of battle, the last thing you can tell voters is the truth.

Voters, ravaged by economic upheaval, don't want to hear the truth.

Michigan primary voters didn't want John McCain telling them that their old manufacturing jobs are not coming back. So, instead, in January, they cast their votes for rival Mitt Romney, who offered them bromides.

America is coming into some rough economic times: you have to keep it simple.... Stupid!

The Republicans are going to seize these issues and whoever is the Democratic nominee is going to have to play along.

You can't tell the voters in Rust Belt America that you are not going to make everything all right it was before.

If you are a politician, you have to promise them that you are going to bring back the factories and the high paying jobs. You have to tell them that you will build a wall on the Mexican border to keep out all those illegal immigrants who are taking their jobs..... even if it's not true.

And you have to promise to gut the free trade agreements like NAFTA. You don't dare mention that you really can't do this because the treaties are signed, and if you did Canada would stop sending us their oil and natural gas.

You don't tell them that if we closed our borders to all the foreign goods coming in from China, prices would skyrocket at Wal-Mart and the Chinese wouldn't buy our wheat and farm products and our farmers would go crazy.

You gotta keep it simple. Blame the immigrants, the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Chinese, Al Qaeda, Iran..... Blame anyone, blame everyone, but make sure that finger is pointing away from American soil.

Jimmy Carter made this mistake in his 1976 "Malaise" speech, in which he admonished American "self-indulgence and consumption." It proved to be a fatal blow to his presidency -- and he lost his reelection bid.

I have admired Obama's ability to talk in inspiring generalities about Hope and Change, without getting into specifics, but he seems to have stumbled this time.

It would be sheer folly to expect complete honesty from politicians during an election, much less during a nominating process.

You can't really be a good politician, or a good president, without being somewhat of a morally flawed human being. The too-good-for-this-world politicians -- George McGovern, Barry Goldwater, Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter -- have had an annoying habit of losing elections.

Americans know they need a president with a different skill-set: someone who will take care of them and their needs but is not too fastidious to do what it takes to win.

A Presidential candidate shouldn't have the same opinions and concerns during the primaries as he has in the general election ... or during governing -- that would be stupid.

Campaigning politicians are expected to charm and cajole relevant constituencies, to pander, to bob and weave, and to continually cobble together disparate interest groups. These are the skills - making political moves and having the capacity and courage for bold, persistent experimentation - an effective president will need.

Good presidents should have an agenda - a strategic vision, a fundamental core of beliefs, ideas, and a burning passion; but they should also be pragmatic, flexible, cunning and be able to demonstrate the capacity to grow and change.

This should be our modus operandi when picking a president. We should judge a candidate on what, we believe, he (or she) is really going to do when he (or she) becomes president, and not by whatever gibberish they have to spout to win the nomination.

We need to pick a president who is going to be able to deal artfully with a complicated, dangerous geopolitical situation. Someone who can forge a coalition of Arab states that will make it possible for the U.S. to get out of Iraq ...who can create an international climate that dries up anti-American terrorism...who can win over the Europeans and the Asians...who can preserve and restore American hegemony, without being a bully...and who can nimbly confront the coming economic maelstrom.

It doesn't really matter who opposed the Iraq war first. This has nothing to do with what we need for our future safety and prosperity. What matters is which candidate has the depth and dexterity to get us out of one of the stickiest and scariest situations America has ever faced. The maneuvering is going to take a deft and delicate hand.

These skills are, coincidentally, similar to the skills that it takes to get the nomination.

You have to win the nomination first, and do whatever it takes, then you can think about what kind of campaign you want to run in the general election, how you want to govern, and what you want to, and can, accomplish.

The history of the great presidents of yesteryear has shown that campaign themes/promises and subsequent governing often have little to do with one another.

Nor would we want them to.

All of our great presidents have shown -- for lack of a better phrase -- a great deal of "ideological malleability" and pragmatism.

Thomas Jefferson reviled public debt so much that in 1798 he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have prevented the federal government from borrowing. But in 1803, when presented with the opportunity to drastically increase the size of the United States by purchasing vast swaths of land known as the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson quickly abandoned his fears about borrowing.

During the campaign of 1860, Abraham Lincoln persistently promised not to interfere with slavery in the Southern states. But when the Southern states declared their independence, Lincoln soon issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the Union.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 campaign was based on his pledge to cut taxes as a way to deal with the Great Depression. He did nothing of the sort of course. His opponent, Herbert Hoover, tagged him as a "chameleon in plaid," but FDR went on to become one of our greatest presidents by increasing taxes and spending.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran on a platform that shamelessly exploited fears that the U.S. had fallen grievously behind in the arms race against the Soviet Union-- the Phantom Missile Gap. We hadn't, of course, as later became obvious.

Lyndon B. Johnson pandered to his conservative southern roots during the 1960 election and yet, as president, he pushed through the most extensive civil rights reforms ever enacted.

The first rule in politics is: if you don't succeed in the short run, there will be no long run.

Somehow the voters knew, when these wannabe presidents were running, that they were tough enough, nimble enough, and artfully pragmatic enough to successfully negotiate some of the thorniest problems this country has ever faced: Slavery and Rebellion, the Great Depression, World War II, the threat from Communism, and the Civil Rights struggle.

Candidates with uncompromising ideals, who promise a new kind of politics, are very appealing. But ultimately, politicians who practice compromise and calculated obfuscation tend to be our most successful presidents. Had these great presidents clung steadfastly and bull-headedly to their campaign positions, our country would be far worse off.