April 20, 2008
Brush It Off
By MAUREEN DOWD
It had to be the first time in history that a presidential candidate had a hip-hop moment.
Barack Obama, who says he listens to Jay-Z along with his “old school guy” favorites like Earth, Wind & Fire and the Temptations, alluded to the rapper’s 2003 hit “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” on Thursday to sweep away concerns about his pugnacity.
After conceding that the Philly debate was tough, he brushed the imaginary lint of Hillary, George and Charlie from his shoulders, in a wordless reference to Jay-Z’s lyrics in his anthem about not letting anyone crimp your ride as you cruise from the bottom to the top: “Got some, dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off for me.”
There’s no doubt the cat is cool. It’s easy to imagine the wild reception many parts of the world would give a President Obama as he loped down the stairs of Air Force One in his aviator glasses, the chic and chiseled Michelle on his arm.
The imagery of the 2008 race is all about cool and hot.
Obama is cool in a good way. He continues to look to the stars as the Clintons drag him down to the gutter, even when Hillary suggests he should scamper out of the kitchen since he’s so obviously sensitive to heat.
The Clintons are still scalded over the cool new kid in school precociously usurping the dream of Hillary, granddaughter of a Scranton lace mill worker and wife of a man who thinks he owes her the presidency.
This spurred the delicious spectacle of Bill Clinton, king of self-pity, suggesting that Obama was whining too much about the tone of the debate.
Like Bill, John McCain has his hot-headed flashes and struggles to stay cool.
But before it’s signed, sealed and delivered, as his campaign song goes, Obama will have to balance his cool with some heat, as J.F.K. did. He seems too imperious about the power of hot-button values issues that have proved so potent for most of his lifetime.
Sometimes when he answered questions at the ABC debate, you could see white letters on a black background scrawling across the screen of a Republican attack ad.
He can create an uplifting new kind of politics if he becomes president, but first he’s going to have to get past the shallow and vicious old politics he says he disdains (even if his campaign knows how to dip into the Clinton toolbox).
The thorny questions Obama got in the debate were absolutely predictable, yet he seemed utterly unprepared and annoyed by them. He did not do well for the same reason he failed to outmaneuver Hillary in a year’s worth of debates: he disdains the convention, the need for sound bites and witty flick-offs and game-changing jabs.
He needs to be less philosophical and abstract, and more visceral and personal. Some of the topics he acted dismissive about are real things on the minds of many Americans.
Obama does not need to wear a flag pin. By the time NBC colored its peacock logo with the Stars and Stripes after 9/11, it was clear that patriotism had been co-opted by commercialism. And he’s right that W. and Cheney used patriotism in a corrosive way to goad Americans into going along with their trumped-up war.
But when a voter from Latrobe asked in the debate why he doesn’t wear a flag pin, he high-hatted it as a “manufactured issue,” then, backing in tepidly, added, “I could not help but love this country for all that it’s given me.”
Asked about his friendly relationship with the former Weather Underground anarchist William Ayers — an association that The Wall Street Journal suggests could turn into the Swift Boat of 2008 given Ayers’s statement that “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough” — Obama defended him with a line that only the eggheads orbiting his campaign could appreciate. Ayers, he said, is “a professor of English in Chicago.”
Obama has to prove to Americans that, despite his exotic background and multicultural looks, he shares or at least respects their values and understands why they would be upset about his associations with the Rev. Wright and an ex-Weatherman.
Even though his supporters raised Cain about ABC, Obama is smart enough to know he will need a better game against a canny war hero. Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Friday, he seemed eager to show he was not highfalutin. He said he and Michelle weren’t born with silver spoons; he shared how “burned up” he was when his sick mother could not get health insurance; he hugged a disabled veteran who thanked him for getting into the race, and he left a rally with a lusty “God Bless America.”
He’s trying, as Jay-Z says, to get flow.