Living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. hasn’t stopped President Barack Obama from reminding the public of his humble roots and asserting that he, too, was once just another middle-class American.
As he did during his campaign, Obama draws on personal experience to show empathy for Americans fighting with insurance companies, struggling to pay students loans and worrying about their retirement benefits.
“Look, I’m a guy who had about $60,000 worth of debt when I graduated from law school, and Michelle had $60,000,” the president said at a Twitter town hall this month. “And so we were paying a bigger amount every month than our mortgage. And we did that for eight, 10 years. So I know how burdensome this can be.”
At a health care town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., in August 2009, Obama sympathized with a woman named Lori, who said she couldn’t get insurance coverage because she had hepatitis C.
“I have to say, this is personal for Lori, but it’s also personal for me,” Obama said, repeating a story he had shared on the campaign trail. “I will never forget my own mother as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether her insurance would refuse to pay for her treatment. … If it could happen to her, it could happen to any one of us.”
And at several recent fundraisers, the president — who turns 50 on Aug. 4 — has even started speaking to the country’s seniors as someone who will soon join their ranks.
“If at some point ever I’m able to walk in Central Park again, and I’m taking a stroll and I see an elderly couple pass by me, and they’re holding hands, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s going to be me and Michelle someday,’ and I know that they’ve got the security of a stable retirement and they’re not going to have to worry that if they get sick, they’ll lose everything — that makes my life better,” Obama said at a New York fundraiser in June.
But Obama’s personal anecdotes have stirred some skepticism.
A biography of his mother out this spring raised questions about the president’s claim that Stanley Ann Dunham was denied insurance benefits because of a pre-existing medical condition.
“The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago,” White House spokesman Nick Papas told The New York Times, without disputing the disclosures from author and Times reporter Janny Scott.
The book fueled accusations from the right that Obama had lied. Dunham “wanted to physically make money from her illness, then, essentially. She wanted to get paid for being sick with cancer,” said Pat Gray, co-host of Glenn Beck’s radio show.
And although the Obamas grappled with student loans, they are unlikely to face financial troubles again.
Obama’s three books have netted about $5 million in cumulative sales, according to Nielsen BookScan. His 2010 financial disclosure reports assets of $1 million to $5 million, in addition to retirement and college funds.
He also could follow some of his predecessors in raking in millions from speaking engagements after his presidency.
“Ulysses Grant had to finish his memoirs when he had throat cancer to pay off his bills,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who worked on Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s campaigns. “Everybody knows we’re way past that — presidents now have a more-than-comfortable post-presidency.”
Phil Kent, CEO of the American Seniors Association, a group that bills itself “the conservative alternative to the AARP,” also dismissed Obama’s musings on aging as mere campaign strategy.
“Any politician can say something like that to try to court the senior vote, but the senior vote wants to see promises kept by the U.S. government,” said Kent. “What they want is to see Social Security and Medicare saved.”
Despite the criticism, experts say the strategy is important — and something Obama happens to be good at.
“George W. Bush didn’t even have a sense of how much milk cost, coming across as too above and too outside of the average American’s normal experience,” said Shawn Parry-Giles, a political rhetoric professor at the University of Maryland. “To avoid this mistake, Obama’s emphasizing that he has had some of the same experiences as the public.”
And Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Social Security, defended the president’s reflections on growing old.
“Not only should he say, ‘I know Michelle and I will be that couple,’ he should also ask Republicans, ‘How dare you ask seniors to carry the burden in cuts to their benefits to cover the deficits cause by their reckless spending?’” Becerra said.
But as Obama campaigns for reelection, he should remember that personal stories are no substitute for effective outreach, said Ted Widmer, who was a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton.
“I don’t think it would be a mistake for him to enter campaign mode by attending outdoor rallies with his shirtsleeves rolled up, shake hands with a lot of people and go to places like Gary, Ind., and Flint, Mich., and just say, ‘I understand.’”
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