Superman or Common Man?

There’s a low bar for our nation’s highest office

“I like that little Down syndrome kid. One of them lives down the street. They’re wonderful children. They’re wonderful people. And I like the idea that this guy does those long-distance races. Stayed in the race for 500 miles with a broken arm. My kind of guy.” This is how voters think about vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, at least according to Bill Clinton.

And while Clinton praises Palin as an excellent choice because of her pregnant daughter and son with Down syndrome, Barack Obama’s amazing rhetoric and Harvard education have made him seem “aloof.” He’s an elitist whose Ivy-League background and experience in an Indonesian school need to be counterbalanced by his often-repeated “only in America” biography.

There is something troubling in the continued emphasis on our candidates being ordinary and familiar, never wise and extraordinary, on being baby-havers, not baby-kissers. McCain’s choice of running mate was a nod to the religious right and to frustrated Hillary supporters, to be sure. But more than that, it was a concession to the contingent of American voters, growing in size and volume, who want a leader who looks, sounds and thinks like them.

Of course, Dubya was no different: That erstwhile Ivy Leaguer knew to play up his adoptive Texan roots for this very reason. And his electoral success in 2004 explains how ‘narrative’ has hijacked the race in 2008. But it seems this time the stakes have been raised for the candidates. Beyond simply seeming like ‘authentic Americans’, they also have to highlight their encounters with regular-folk adversities and hardships; these aspects of their biographies have come to supersede all foreign affairs experience or a top-flight education.

Thus, in a time when the economy is unraveling, international support is dissolving, and the average American is struggling to pay the bills, it seems that voters are still better won over by a candidate with whom they can empathize—who has experienced their daughter’s premature pregnancy or struggled along with the help of food stamps—than by extraordinary powers of leadership or experiences. The campaigns have been more than happy to indulge this demand. Take Hillary Clinton, who, even as she insisted on her own experience, felt compelled to invent a little Bosnian sniper fire and take an uncharacteristic shot of Crown Royal, rather than use the language of the political elite she inhabits.

This tension seems most interesting in the case of Sen. Obama; after all, he has criticized politicians who play the “patriotic American” card. As he writes in his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, “those in public life have become so scripted, and the gestures that candidates use to signify their values have become so standardized (a stop at a black church, the hunting trip, the visit to a NASCAR track, the reading in the kindergarten classroom)3.” Obama has, he suggests, never felt the need to prove he’s your typical all-American Joe: he’s proud of the fact that he is comfortable asking for Dijon mustard while campaign advisors suggest he take the regular yellow kind. But he also realizes, as much as anyone, that he needs to appear a certain way to win votes—that is, not as the former president of the Harvard Law Review.

The irony is that the true American story is not just about facing obstacles, but triumphing over them. It’s not just about growing up in a single-parent family assisted by food stamps, but climbing the ranks at a premier law school. It’s not just about having spent fives years as a prisoner of war, but rising to become a powerful senator who’s spent decades in Washington. Unfortunately, though, we can’t hear about the latter achievements because they alienate the candidate from the people they may one day lead. Empathy and sympathy, necessary as they are in a president, have shrunk our candidates and nipped off the interesting stories of their “improbable journeys” at the very beginning.

Rachel A. Stark ’11, a Crimson news writer, is planning to be a social studies concentrator in Currier House.