Why Obama Makes Them Uncomfortable


John McCain, trying to fake a smile.


Obama met with John McCain earlier this week: a magnanimous gesture that turned into an awkward event. If you look at any of the photos or videos from the event you’ll know what I mean: McCain was squirming throughout, like he was about to be recaptured by the Vietnamese.


When I saw the pictures of the meeting, I thought, there’s something going on here. It’s not just partisanship or McCain being a sore loser. Other politicians are similarly made awkward around Obama. I’ve seen that McCain squirm on Joe Lieberman’s face as well.  As Stephen Colbert has noted, whenever Bill Clinton forces himself to say the name “Barack Obama” he looks like he’s passing a kidney stone.


The big election issue of Newsweek offers a clue. The editors of that magazine at one point note:


On the night she officially lost the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a long and friendly phone conversation with McCain. Clinton was actually on better terms with McCain than she was with Obama. Clinton and McCain had downed shots together on Senate junkets; they regarded each other as grizzled veterans of the political wars and shared a certain disdain for Obama as flashy and callow.


As this analysis makes clear, what we have here is a generational issue, more than a racial one. Obama is a good decade or two younger than everyone else on the national stage (except for Palin, whose debut has hardly been auspicious). Politicians like McCain and the Clintons rose through the ranks the old fashioned way, spending years working their way up. They expect to be rewarded for their seniority. And here comes this upstart Obama, practically unknown 4 years ago, and he turns out to be the most gifted politician in a generation.


Aside from making them jealous, Obama is also a reminder to the old that their day is done. He’s a walking memento mori. Every politician older than him knows that their time has passed and they’ll be soon dead. That’s what makes them pickled face in Obama’s presence.

This perhaps also explains a secret power Obama has displayed time and again. He has the ability to provoke his political opponents so they say stupid, self-discrediting things. Think about Bill Clinton’s various racially tinged comments during the primaries. Or McCain’s flustered anger in the weeks leading up to the election. Or Ralph Nader’s tone-deaf suggestion that Obama might turn out to be an “Uncle Tom.” Even Al-Qaeda has fallen into this trap with Ayman al-Zawahri calling Obama a “house Negro”.


In each one of these cases someone older than Obama fails to gauge his strength and hurls an insult that makes the speaker, not the intended target, look foolish. Call it the Obama effect, the ability of a fresh face to throw the old off guard and make them embarrass themselves. 

4 thoughts on “Why Obama Makes Them Uncomfortable

  1. As this analysis makes clear, what we have here is a generational issue, more than a racial one.

    And then:

    And here comes this upstart Obama, practically unknown 4 years ago, and he turns out to be the most gifted politician in a generation.

    I take the point on there being a generational element to this disdain. But I find it hard to believe that disliking Obama for being an “upstart” (the tongue almost slips to “uppity,” no?) is not also racially-coded.

    Even the generational worry may have something to do with McCain and the Clinton’s whiteness and sense of entitlement, as they learn the lesson of James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village”:

    This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

  2. I agree that the generational and racial worries are interlinked: white people in America tend to be older (and old whites were really the group that supported McCain most). But for the purposes of this analysis I wanted to highlight the generational component, as distinct from the racial one.

    To put it another way, I do think very young politicians (say Clinton in 1992 or Kennedy in 1960) have also provoked this type of jealousy, although less intense than what Obama met with.

  3. I’ve long thought that there is less to Obama on the issues than meets the eye. I suspect the Clintons and McCain, may he rot somewhere or other, share the assessment. Many people felt the same way about Reagan, who left a lemon-sucking face on critics of all ages for years.

    I’d put Zawahri’s comment in a different category, and I confess I don’t understand why you think it coincides with domestic racism or underestimation. It seems to me aimed at undercutting Obama’s standing with other tinted people in other parts of the world — ‘never mind his color, he’s still an agent of American aggression,’ which will probably prove more or less accurate — which it may well do to whatever extent Zawahri has credibility with that audience.

  4. Obama is essentially the same age as Clinton was when he was elected. 46 is very young for a president. Kennedy was the youngest 43, but only by less than 100 days under TR.

    That takes care of all 20th century presidents elected before their 50th birthday.

    I don’t think it’s age. Obama is the true maverick. By American political standards he is unique, exotic. Beyond his odd social and cultural background there is his formidable intellectual bonifides which he oddly doesn’t care to hide. That scares the crap out of other pols. Every single thing about him says he couldn’t get elected to national office. They can’t understand it and what we don’t understand we fear, or at least are uncomfortable around.

    For me, as if anyone cares, I think Obama is smart and wise enough to grasp revolution doesn’t work in America. Multiple small ju jistsu type moves can have a profound effect. I hope that is his conception and intent.

    The problem is the economic disaster is becoming a catastrophy of stupendous scale which might overwhelm not just him but the entire system.

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