March 17, 2008

Comedian Chris Rock used to have a bit in his stand-up routine about how running for president was the single most arrogant thing a person could do. That said, I think some candidates clearly come across as more arrogant than others.

Perceptions on issues like these tend to be in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve never thought this applied much to Barack Obama. His standard stump speech tells audiences, “I’m reminded every day that I’m not a perfect man,” and, “I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.” In his campaign kick-off speech in February 2007, Obama said, “I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement.” These aren’t the kinds of things an arrogant candidate tends to say. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Nevertheless, the AP’s Ron Fournier, in an opinion piece, challenges Obama on the issue.

[T]here’s a line smart politicians don’t cross — somewhere between “I’m qualified to be president” and “I’m born to be president.” Wherever it lies, Barack Obama better watch his step.

He’s bordering on arrogance.

The dictionary defines the word as an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.” Obama may not be offensive or overbearing, but he can be a bit too cocky for his own good.

The evidence seems a little thin. Fournier digs up some old quotes, which appear to have been spoken in jest. In fact, Fournier concedes that with one of the quotes — Obama told supporters in January that by the time he was done speaking “a light will shine down from somewhere” — Obama was “surely kidding.”

But Fournier nevertheless insists that both Obama and his wife “ooze a sense of entitlement.”

“Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics,” his wife said a few weeks ago, adding that Americans will get only one chance to elect him. […]

If arrogance is a display of self-importance and superiority, Obama earns the pejorative every time he calls his pre-invasion opposition to the war in Iraq an act of courage.

While he deserves credit for forecasting the complications of war in 2002, Obama’s opposition carried scant political risk because he was a little-known state lawmaker courting liberal voters in Illinois.

I still don’t see it. Michelle Obama praised her husband, but that’s what all candidate spouses do; it’s hardly proof of “a sense of entitlement.”

As for Obama’s 2002 opposition to the war, being right about the biggest issue of the day, and then telling voters about it, isn’t arrogance. As for the “risk,” I think Fournier is being unfair — anyone who dared to speak up against the war at the time was branded unserious and unreliable on national security. For an ambitious U.S. Senate candidate, Obama definitely showed courage by stepping up and saying this war was a mistake.

Ultimately, I suppose Fournier’s piece reads more like a warning than an accusation. He didn’t argue that Obama is arrogant so much as he suggests voters might think so if Obama isn’t careful. I suppose that’s reasonable advice, though I’m not entirely sure how a presidential candidate can sell himself or herself to the electorate without touting their abilities, record, and strengths.

I guess we’ll find out.

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