Barack Obama: Egghead?

Barack Obama begins most of his speeches with the claim that voters will have a crucial choice to make on November 4: "We meet at a moment when this country is facing a set of challenges unlike any we've ever known."

During debates Obama - the former University of Chicago professor of constitutional law -- keeps his head tilted thoughtfully, as if in a seminar. His answers weave in and out, sometimes incisively, sometimes evasively. When pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church asked Obama last Saturday if life begins at conception, Obama's 210 word response, or perhaps, non-response ran as follows:

From a theological perspective or scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me speak more generally about this issue because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue I think is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.

But point number two, I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade and come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion, but because ultimately I don't think women make these decisions casually. They wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors or the family members.

And so, for me, the goal right now should be - and this is where I think we can find common ground, and by the way I have now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform - is how do we reduce the number of abortions, because the fact is that although we've had a president who is opposed to abortions over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down.

There are legions of voters who clearly thrive on the considered intellectual approach that has characterized Obama's presidential bid, finding it his core appeal. There are potential costs, however, according to a number of political observers. Obama's cerebral style and anti-war stance can be seen as detached, condescending, or even worse "effete" in the opinion of some -- potentially evoking the diminishing enthusiasm that undermined the Democratic campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Bradley, Gore, and Kerry.

The McCain campaign has aggressively capitalized on this perceived vulnerability in Obama's performance, portraying him as disengaged from the high-pressure concerns central to the working and middle class. In the commercial "Family" the McCain campaign asks, "Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family?"

More recently, McCain has escalated his attack to suggest that Obama as an intellectual cannot grasp the military concept of victory.

Not content to merely predict failure in Iraq, my opponent tried to legislate failure. This was back when supporting America's efforts in Iraq entailed serious political risk. It was a clarifying moment. It was a moment when political self-interest and the national interest parted ways....

Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and to brave Iraqi fighters, the surge has succeeded. And yet Senator Obama still cannot quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment....Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory. In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first.

There are a number of analysts who see Obama as vulnerable on this front:

Derek Shearer, Occidental College Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs and Ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration said, succinctly, "He is way too 'Harvard'."

Professor Caroline Heldman, also a political scientist at Occidental, said she is "concerned that Obama may be increasingly framed as 'not manly enough' by the Republican Party/ McCain Camp." The presidency, she said, "is conflated with masculinity in the minds of most Americans. In short, a great way to weaken a presidential opponent is to subtly 'feminize' him."

Democratic lobbyist Lawrence F. Obrien, III said: "People like to say he is a black Jack Kennedy. Fine, up to a point. Kennedy was smart, elegant, very well spoken, slim, handsome -- but, he also was Irish. Sharp, quick and abundant sense of humor, able to make contact with people."

"Obama's fundamental problem with voters is that he sometimes comes across as an elitist who talks down to them, dismissing their worries and telling them what they really should be concerned about. Voters don't like being addressed in this manner," said Emory political scientist Merle Black, an expert on the Republican realignment of the South.

Ron Kaufman, former political aide to George H. W. Bush, acknowledged that Obama "clearly connects with a ton of folks, but so did almost-President Howard Dean. The polls continue to say that this is tied. Obama should be 15-20 points ahead. The fact that he is not should worry them . . . . I honestly believe Obama may have a glass jaw."

On the other side, a substantial number of political specialists contend that Obama does not have a significant problem on this front.

"Barack Obama needs to work hard to win white working class voters. But, thankfully, he's not Adlai Stevenson; John McCain is not Dwight Eisenhower; and today's America is not the America of the 1950's," said David Kusnet, former chief speechwriter in the Clinton administration and author of the new book Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers are Unhappier than Ever (Wiley, 2008).

"Obama was a community organizer in a neighborhood where the steel mills had shut down. Obama does know how to address economic grievances and also how to connect these complaints with the sense that our democracy is as broken as our economy. Obama needs to continue fleshing out his economic agenda and contrast it with McCain's halfhearted embrace of Bush's failed policies. But his elevated rhetoric and down-to-earth policy prescriptions can reinforce each other, as they did with FDR and JFK," Kusnet said.

Another Clinton speechwriter, Michael Cohen, author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the Twentieth Century and How They Shaped Modern America (Bloomsbury, June 2008), contended: "The kind of rhetoric that Obama is employing below is really not that out of kilter in a change election. In fact it's pretty standard. I think this call for more specifics is hugely overrated and unnecessary. On the issues Obama is favored, particularly domestic issues, the big questions are really about personality and intangibles, like experience."

Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty noted the he has had "friends and colleagues comment on the possibility that Obama could become the egghead candidate," but, McCarthy countered, "the current administration has given anti-intellectualism a bad name....With the outcomes of that kind of know-nothingism on display, the Republicans may find it harder to criticize Obama for being an intellectual (though they may find other ways to paint him as an elitist)."

Political scientist Jennifer Lawless of Brown said that in 2002, she found "that stereotyping about candidate competence to govern in a political context dominated by the 'war on terrorism' may work to the detriment of women candidates, at least at the presidential level. It wasn't that candidates have to be 'manly,' but rather, that traditional conceptions of strong leaders tend to be more consistent with images of male, as opposed to female, politicians."

Now, however, Lawless is not sure the same finding would hold:

Considering that public opinion regarding the war [has become] so negative, it is possible that a more 'unconventional leadership,' at least in terms of stereotypes, might be appealing to the average voter. In this way, a candidate like Obama might have an edge over McCain, if for no reason other than the fact that Obama represents something very different from George Bush and his rhetoric regarding war -- i.e., 'looking the terrorists in the eye' and 'smoking them out of their caves' didn't turn out the way most Americans would have liked.

Obama recently responded to McCain's assaults: "We've got work to do," he told supporters in Albuquerque on August 18. "[C]ontrary to what John McCain's advisers will say, we are not a bunch of whiners. We will suck it up."

On television, Obama has begun to directly counter-attack McCain on the issue of who is in touch with the middle class.

One of the more recent Obama commercials, Book, begin with the announcer saying "Economics by John McCain. Support George Bush 95 percent of the time. Keep spending $10 billion a month for the war in Iraq while the Iraqis sell oil for record prices giving Iraq a $79 billion oil surplus and hurting our economy. Barack Obama's plan: end the war responsibly, better schools, no more tax breaks for oil companies. Barack Obama: the middle class first."