Monday, February 11, 2008

How Obama Appeals to Elites

Here’s a question: what, if any, national change does Barack Obama represent? I have an idea and it begins with the fact that wealthy Americans are migrating to the Democratic party, a move preceded by the college-educated professional class moving to the Democrats awhile back. Other than African Americans, who does Obama most appeal to? The wealthy and well-educated.

Why America’s elites are moving towards the Democrats is a post for another day. What’s important is that, while Obama’s appeal extends well beyond the well-off and well-taught, the number of elite citizens within the party has hit a critical mass capable of fueling and funding an insurgent campaign. But what’s the attraction? Outside Obama’s more experiential style versus Clinton’s more commodity-based style, as discussed by David Brooks, I believe Obama is grabbing the votes of the elites for three important reasons.

First, it’s a matter of process. While Obama may share many goals with Clinton, he promises a substantially different leadership method. Clinton talks in terms of what people deserve from their government. Obama talks about what we are obligated to give each other, believing the government to be the most efficient means of helping one another (if you believe charities are the best method, you probably aren’t be a Democrat). For the elites who generally do not need government assistance, their desire to expand health care and help the working class is largesse coupled with a desire for a more functional nation. They are naturally wary of Clinton who seems to be a technocrat focused solely on finding the quickest avenues to handing out “deserved” entitlements.

Instead, the elites are more likely to trust Obama who seems to better understands the give-and-take and across-the-board expectations inherent in all government assistance. This is a matter of leadership style and method, not just rhetoric. If you feel it is appropriate to give of yourself to better the nation (i.e. pay more taxes), you want a President who appreciates that sacrifice and will manage the programs accordingly. Obama’s well-publicized support of teacher merit-pay is one excellent example of how he integrates a greater amount of responsibility with his government-program driven solutions. His refusal to shove every last American into a health care program whether they want one or not is another example of where he includes personal responsibility in his liberal agenda.

Secondly, Obama is more internationalist than Clinton. His stated preference for robust engagement with even the most difficult of nations, as distinct from the Bush administration’s ignore and punish policy and Clinton’s similar if less unilateral predilections, appeals to elites who tend to live more internationally. Elites often travel the world for pleasure and work with people of other nations for business. As such, they are less American-centric and more attuned to the opinions of the rest of the world. When those opinions are negative, it makes travel abroad less pleasurable and business relationships less fruitful. To many of these elites, whether Obama’s foreign policy is right or wrong is less important than whether it will improve foreign opinions of our nation. Greater engagement is something many nation’s ask of us so, unsurprisingly, Obama’s position is attractive to many elites.

Finally, the well-off and college-educated are indoctrinated in the culture of change. Business success is about the next great product and intellectualism is about the next great theory or discovery. This submersion in change not only makes elites more desirous of the new but also less worried about risk. Whatever Obama’s shortcomings are, they are acceptable to elites if he delivers on his promise. For the less secure in life, failure can be devastating. For the elites, failure is typically just a temporary setback and thus they respond less to Clintons “I’m the safe choice” message and more to Obama’s “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for” message. Obama is simply more daring, in his foreign policy, in his support for nuclear power (Clinton is bravely “agnostic”) and in his willingness to give a polite middle finger to the divide and conquer style of politics.

There’s been a lot of discussion on how Obama can win the hearts of red state (read: moderate) Democratic leaders and leftist organizations like The answer may not be the cynical assumption that he’s a man of two faces or of no faces. The answer may simply be that both groups come from the party’s well-off, well-educated block of voters. Whatever policy differences they have, they share enough in common to prefer Obama over Clinton. Is it enough to win him the nomination? It is if the well-off, well-educated super-delegates also come along for the ride. Then he’ll have all the money and enthusiasm he needs to take on (and quite possibly take down) John McCain.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan -

Normally I find your views well informed and a great read - but on this one - I couldn't DISAGREE more. Being well educated, high income and having numerous friends and family who are as well - none of us, and I mean none of us find anything appealing about Obama. To the contrary - of all the candidates he is the scariest. As much as I detest the Clintons, I'd much rather see Hillary than Obama. At least with her she is known quantity and will be held in check - Obama has little record and what record he does have is frightening. Lack of experience is another issue - and yes, I know Reagan, Clinton, Bush, et. al. had little experience - but they at least had been in charge of their respective states for an extended period of time. Obama's experience? Freshman Senator - and most of that time he has been running for President.

I think Obama's appeal is his youth and his eloquence. I admit, he is a phenomenal speaker and very engaging and I actually enjoy listening to him speak - but one has to listen to his message and if one does, one is scared.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Anon, your personal experience aside, the numbers do indicate that the well-off and well-educated are flocking to Obama. Mind you, I'm not saying this is a good ro bad thing -- I'm just trying to explain why I think it's happening.

I am well-educated and decently well-off and am supporting McCain, so I don't fit the bill either. But a lot of people do and I think it's fascinating.

7:40 AM  
Blogger bucyrus said...

The heart wants what it wants, Alan. And if you didn't get it when you yearned deeply for it, the fixation tends to remain.

The vast majority of economically comfortable and well-educated democrats who are older now always fantasized about a political white knight, so many of them are still eager to fall in love now.

Blue-collar folks don't tend to have the same luxury to indulge in fantasy. They'll settle for a loyal deliveryman.

12:14 PM  

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