Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Obama and the Art of the Pander

The South Asian Journalism Association posted a story about a speech Barack Obama gave to a group of expatriate Indians and Pakistanis. While it is routine for presidential candidates to speak to a multitude of interest groups, amending their stump speech to pander to the group in question, Obama does it with so much damn style that you can’t help but be charmed.

Obama told the group - which included many Indian and Pakistani immigrants - that he is not only familiar with their cultures - but also proud of his lifelong association with them.
"Not only do I think I'm a desi, but I'm a desi," he said, using a colloquial term that describes South Asian immigrants. The remark was greeted with laughs. "I'm a homeboy."
He said that when he went to Occidental College, his first roommate was Pakistani. And in his dorm, he said with a laugh, "Indians and Pakistanis came together under one roof ... to cause havoc in the university."
To applause, he said he became an expert at cooking dal and other ethnic dishes, though "somebody else made the naan," the trademark Indian bread.

Just these few sentences contain all the ingredients of a successful pander. He shows familiarity with South Asian terms and professes to be intimately linked to the group in question, but is also careful to make a self-deprecating joke.

I’ve always disliked pandering in all its forms, be it Hillary Clinton drinking whiskey shots in Pennsylvania or George W. Bush pulling that grating folksy routine of his, but Obama, even more than the previous master Bill Clinton, makes you believe he means every word he says. With Clinton you always got the feeling that he was trying to pull a fast one on you, but you still let yourself be fooled.

Obama‘s verbal ability also highlights an important distinction between him and John McCain. While Obama will sweet talk desis, he is still ready to take military action in Pakistan. McCain, meanwhile, is clearly uncomfortable in social settings where he is forced to make small talk, fake enthusiasm and speak in superlatives (this Daily Show video of McCain with the Dalai Lama hilariously highlights that). His pandering takes an altogether more sinister form. He seems startlingly eager to change his positions on pivotal issues, from tax cuts to drilling for oil in Alaska to torture, to gain votes.

And of the two, I know which form of pandering I prefer.

P.S. A case can be made that Obama has a genuine connection to South Asia, and Pakistan in particular. This CNN video on the differences between Obama and McCain’s pronunciations of Pakistan would be a good starting point.


adeel said...

I remember reading this a while back but there seems to be a lot of 'white noise' from various groups pushing it as a negative.... it makes me wonder about the authenticity of claims that such a visit occured. Did it? Would explain his familiarity with the subcontinent.

bubs said...

Yeah apparently he stayed in Karachi with his college roommate Hasan Chandoo and also spent some time in interior Sindh staying with Mohammedmian Soomro.

Ahsan said...

Bubs, please check email.

Desi Italiana said...

Obama using food to connect to Indians and Pakistanis was a stroke of genius. He may not know a lot about either 'culture,' but he knew enough.

The final touch on being a "Desi" would be to bring marriage up-- that topic that Indians and Pakistanis can never shut the hell up about.

Ahsan said...


Hahaha yes, the marriage bit is definitely true. Don't forget talk about being from a "good family".