National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Obama is Better For

What, exactly, is so wrong with Sen. Barack Obama suggesting that struggling, working-class families are susceptible to bitterness?

Both of his opponents have sought to gain political advantage by pouncing on his “bitter” remark, claiming its proof he is an elitist because, I suppose, he is not bitter, too. So have the legions of ostensibly non-partisan pundits.

Is this another misstep or unsavory revelation about Obama, along the lines of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright matter? Or is it another signal that Obama may be spinning out of the control of that a tight circle of handlers have worked so hard to maintain for years?

Following on his decision to embrace the Rev. Wright after all, while disagreeing with him only, Obama’s latest remarks in San Francisco about the frustrations and despair of the nation’s underclass mark a perceptible shift in his attitude.

In both cases, he appears to be tapping into the real emotional state of chronically poor, struggling, systematically abused and underrepresented folks, the scores of millions of them.

Far from being an elitist, this represents the opposite. While he can’t undo his personal history, he can and seems to be reaching out and channeling the raw emotions of real people who are hurting, allowing them to animate his sense of purpose.

The Washington Post’s newest dissembler, right-wing columnist Michael Gerson, is a man who’s been fixated in his twice-weekly opinions on Obama’s candidacy for a year. With a long arch-conservative pedigree, including stints at Wheaton College and the Heritage Foundation, and as an exaggeration-prone, provocative speechwriter in the Bush White House, Gerson is hardly interested in Obama’s well-being, except as Obama were a slavish puppet of a thinly-disguised so-called “non-partisan agenda.”

Gerson has intimated through his columns that some, at least, expected Obama to be just that going into the campaign, and that he got a lot more of a boost, based on that expectation, than he might ever have had otherwise. Obama has, after all, advocated relatively free market-friendly policies, such as concerns national health care coverage, than his Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Gerson is among those arch-conservatives who like the idea of couching their ideas and agendas in racially-diverse contexts, such as by promoting abstention while funding AIDS relief in Africa. He is active with the breakaway group that left the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., in protest of an openly-gay priest being named a bishop. That group is now aligned with the menacing Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, who argues that gay people belong in jail just for being gay, among other extremist things.

In his book, published last year, Gerson unapologetically declares himself an “idealist,” favoring superimposing so-called “moral criteria” on top of gritty reality, against working from the ground up, so to speak, for economic opportunity and justice.

In his column published in yesterday’s Post, Gerson decries the fact that Obama apparently shared his “idealist” approach in 2006, but has abandoned it recently.

As evidence Obama was once “one of us,” Gerson cited a speech Obama gave to a “Call for Renewal” conference in Washington, D.C., in 2006, where Obama referenced American historical heroes who “were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause,” adding, “To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is, by definition, a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Last year, he hailed Obama’s candidacy as more of a movement, than a traditional campaign.

Now, however, Gerson wrote, Obama has “seemed to slip into a crude academic Marxism,” which includes the notion that “the deepest realities of politics are economic and not moral.” Obama has become, the jilted Gerson proclaims, “prideful.”

A lot of truth comes through, intentionally or not, in Gerson’s words, because they reflect the expectations of the nation’s true elitists, the uber-rich, regarding Obama.

Rue the thought, they hold, that Obama would actually stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those they’ve been systematically ripping off for generations. By evoking the highly-charged veritable swear word, “Marxist,” he indicates that some of these elites may be getting genuinely nervous.

Gerson’s pain is evidence that Obama’s doing the right thing.