Obama and Elitism

The Obama campaign has decided to put a bit more emphasis on the candidate’s biography:

As he heads into a faceoff with Republican Mitt Romney, President Obama’s speeches are revisiting parts of the life story that helped propel his rise. There are nods to his humble beginnings, his hardworking grandmother and the stresses of debt — in short, stories that best connect with the middle-class voters his reelection may depend on.

“Michelle and I, we’ve been in your shoes,” the president told students Tuesday at the University of North Carolina as he called on Congress to extend a break in school loan interest rates. “Like I said, we didn’t come from wealthy families.”

This comes as Mitt Romney has done the same. As Ezra Klein points out, the first nine paragraphs of his speech last night were pure biography, and the entire text was peppered with references to his personal life.

It will be interesting to see if this pays off for the Obama campaign. A return to the context of his youth—single mother, food stamps, raised by grandmother—might help counter the perception that he is an elitist. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who see Obama as someone who has never had to work for anything. Last night, for example, I encountered a few people on Twitter who insisted that the president “had everything handed to him.” According to them, his book deal was handed to him, his place at Harvard Law School was a handout, and he won his Illinois Senate seat by default (that last part is true, however).

All of this is to say that partisan politics have a sizeable number of people who, I think, believe two things about the candidates. The first is that there’s nothing about Romney’s upbringing that is particularly privileged. He worked hard, became wealthy, and that’s all there is to it. The second ? It’s Obama who has received nothing but breaks in his life—he’s an empty suit that’s been pushed ahead by affirmative action and white guilt. The collorary to this—which I’ve encountered on Twitter as well—is that the “perks” of being a racial minority are equal to, if not greater than, the advantages that come with growing up in a wealthy family.

The standard-issue partisan division over the facts of a president’s life has mixed in with the reactionary racial politics of the contemporary tight (i.e., anti-anti-racism) to yield a sense of anger and resentment toward the upward trajectory of Obama’s life. I’m not sure if there’s anything to make of it, but it’s certainly interesting.