Like many politicians of both parties, Barack Obama knows that the best way to endear one’s self to voters is to make them believe the politician understands their miseries. Bill Clinton did a masterful job of it, telling people, “I feel your pain,” but Obama has had a difficult time making that emotional connection to voters. He tried again earlier this week, telling unemployed voters that he had walked a mile in their shoes:
To show how well he understands life’s daily struggles, President Barack Obama likes to tell the tale of a regular guy who has been out of work, coped with college loans, endured a fatherless childhood and longs at times to just escape.
He’s talking about himself. …
“Anybody who has been out of work — and by the way, I’ve been out of work — knows that feeling you get when you’re out of work,” he told an audience in Iowa. “It’s not just because you’re worried about paying the bills. It’s because a job is about meeting one’s responsibilities and taking care of one’s family.”
Obama stood on an unemployment line? Er … not exactly:
In his reference to knowing what it’s like to be unemployed, Obama was apparently referring to a brief period after he received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and was looking for a job. The White House says Obama was not suggesting that he has lived the hardship of the millions who have lost work or seen their jobs shipped overseas, but rather that he understands how working helps shapes a person’s self-worth and identity.
The I’ve-been-unemployed narrative may work now, but that’s not how Obama has explained that very brief period after his graduation in the past. When he wanted to emphasize public service over personal wealth, Obama has insisted that he could have had his pick of job offers after college but instead chose to work as a community organizer and help the less fortunate. The Obama biography site carries the old and busted narrative, emphasis mine:
Obama began his career by moving to the South Side of Chicago to direct the Developing Communities Project. Together with a coalition of ministers, Obama set out to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods plagued by crime and high unemployment. After graduating from law school, Obama passed up lucrative law firm jobs to head Project Vote, which helped register 150,000 new African American voters in Chicago, the highest number ever registered in a single local effort.
The lack of employment had little to do with not being able to find a job, but with a personal decision not to seek one. That may be admirable, but it’s hardly the same as being unemployed from lack of work and resources. Instead of offering actual empathy, Obama instead provided a cynical — and transparent — spin on his own oft-cited work history.
Update: The “brief period” to which the AP refers comes between his baccalaureate in 1983 and his entry into law school in 1988. Wikipedia makes no mention of any period of unemployment, no matter how brief:
Following high school, Obama moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to attend Occidental College. In February 1981, he made his first public speech, calling for Occidental’s divestment from South Africa. In the summer of 1981, Obama traveled to Indonesia to visit his mother and sister Maya, and visited the families of college friends in India and Pakistan for three weeks.
Later in 1981 he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where he majored in political science with a specialty in international relations and graduated with a B.A. in 1983. He worked for a year at the Business International Corporation, then at the New York Public Interest Research Group.
According to his CV, the NYPIRG job doesn’t even exist, but it probably fit into the time after he left BIC in January 1985. A better description of this period comes from Columbia College Today, and it fits his previous narrative of rejecting the private sector for public service:
Upon graduating from Columbia, Obama attempted a career as a community organizer. He wrote that when classmates weren’t sure what that was, he didn’t have a sufficient answer for them. “Instead, I’d pronounce the need for change,” he wrote. “Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.
“That’s what I’ll do, I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.”
Obama wrote letters to community organizations all around the country asking for a job, but received no positive responses. He ended up working as a research analyst at a consulting company before being promoted to financial writer. “I had my own office, my own secretary and money in the bank,” he says in his book. But he left to pursue his original goal of activism. For six months, Obama carried on another letter-writing campaign seeking a job and worked with an environmental group to encourage City College students to recycle. At last, he landed a job with a nonprofit in Chicago.
Obama drove to his new home, not knowing anyone there, and worked for three years in low-income neighborhoods helping churches create job training programs and advocating school reform.
The issue was hardly a lack of opportunity, as his reluctant forays into the private sector proved. He quit good jobs to look for organizing positions. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly the same as being unable to find a job through lack of any opportunity.
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