Politics & Elections: The President Talks Homespun Virtues

President Obama, who heads to West Virginia this week, says he sees a gap between the common sense and generosity of people "on the ground" and the hard-shell politics at the national level.

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Barack Obama has never done well in rural areas. He lost to Hillary Clinton in rural counties in 2008 and lost rural counties in both his general election victories.

Obama hasn’t spent much time in rural America as President, although he recently spent three days in Alaska and will go to West Virginia on October 21 to talk about drugs. (Jeff Biggers wonders if this means President Obama will also finally address several mining regulations his administration has failed to enact.)

And in an article in the The New York Review of Books, the president talks with Iowa novelist Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead, Housekeeping and Home). Robinson grew up in a smaller Iowa town and so, in the interview, Obama talks a bit about life outside the cities.

This hasn’t always been a comfortable subject for him. Recall that in 2008, candidate Obama tried to explain the difference between living in, say, Chicago, and a small town in Pennsylvania. His audience was made up or rich San Francisco donors:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Obama was described as condescending in these 2008 remarks. In his talk with Robinson, the president again shows his concern for a harsh political culture and again describes what he sees as rural values. Here is an excerpt:

The President: Well, you told me about a certain attitude that your parents had that was—there was a certain set of homespun values of hard work and honesty and humility. And that sounded really familiar to me when I think about my grandparents who grew up in Kansas.

And that’s part of what I see in your writing. And part of my connection to your books, I think, is an appreciation for—without romanticizing Middle America or small-town America—that sense of homespun virtues. And that comes out in your writing. And it sometimes seems really foreign to popular culture today, which is all about celebrity and being loud and bragging and—

Robinson: I mean, I really think that you have to go very far up in American culture to get beyond the point where people have good values. I mean, you really have that feeling sometimes that honesty is more intrinsic in some person that’s doing very low-level work than it is in perhaps somebody that’s trying to find his way into some sensation—

The President: These big systems where everything is all about flash. But that’s not how your parents saw the world, right? When you said that all they cared about was just you being honest and—

Robinson: Yes, exactly.

The President:—doing your best in some enterprise.

Robinson: In whatever. Exactly.

The President: It’s interesting, because we’re talking in Iowa; people always, I think, were surprised about me connecting with folks in small-town Iowa. And the reason I did was, first of all, I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary. At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name. I seemed young. Sometimes I look at my pictures from then and I say, I can’t believe anybody voted for me because I look like I’m twenty-five.

But I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country.

The issue to me, Marilynne, is not so much that those virtues that you prize and that you care about and that are vital to our democracy aren’t there. They are there in Little League games, and—

Robinson: Emergency rooms.

The President:—emergency rooms, and in school buildings. And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life. And people describe it as the distance between Washington and Main Street. But it’s not just Washington; it’s the way we talk about our politics, our foreign policy, our common endeavors. There’s this gap.

And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics. And some of it has to do with all the filters that stand between ordinary people who are busy and running around trying to look after their kids and do a good job and do all the things that maintain a community, so they don’t have the chance to follow the details of complicated policy debates.

They know they want to take care of somebody who’s sick, and they have a generous impulse. How that gets translated into the latest Medicare budgets [isn’t] always clear. They know they want us to use our power wisely in the world, and that violence often begets violence. But they also know the world is dangerous and it’s very hard to sort out, as you talk about in your essay, fear when violence must be met, and when there are other tools at our disposal to try to create a more peaceful world.

So that, I think, is the challenge. I’m very encouraged when I meet people in their environments. Somehow it gets distilled at the national political level in ways that aren’t always as encouraging.

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