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Obama's Pocketbook Politics in N.H.

Obama, man of the people?(AP).

By Alec MacGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- As the focus of the presidential campaign has moved from foreign policy to pocketbook issues in recent weeks, it has offered the spectacle of candidates doing their best to appear genuine in showing understanding for the plights of voters who know full well that the candidates are in a whole other league financially. The race, after all, is clogged with multi-million dollar fortunes -- Mitt Romney's private equity jackpot, the publishing and lecture-circuit gains of the Clintons and Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards' trial lawyer winnings and the inheritance of Mrs. John McCain, beer heiress. (Notable exceptions are Joe Biden, the 99th-richest senator, and Mike Huckabee.)

It is perhaps most interesting, though, to observe this dynamic when it comes to Barack Obama. Obama is now a wealthy man -- thanks in large part to the surging sales of his two books in the past year, he reported personal assets of more than $1 million earlier this year, in addition to his large Chicago home. But he likes to signal to voters that his fortune is more modest than those of many other candidates. And he appears reluctant to part with the kind of personal identification with voters that was more possible only a few years ago when he inhabited a more middle class (okay, upper middle class) station in life -- a kind of identification that the other well-to-do candidates rarely attempt. At many events, he describes how difficult it was watching his mother worrying about her medical costs as she was dying of cancer in her early 50s.

This was evident again at a roundtable discussion Obama held today with a half dozen Concord-area residents at a local restaurant, the Common Man ("aptly titled," noted Obama.) When several of the residents mentioned how worried they were about affording their kids' college education, Obama, dressed in a sleek black suit and purple tie, broke in with his recollection of coming home from the hospital after his elder daughter's birth nine years ago, turning on the television and being immediately confronted with a report saying that any child born that day would face $250,000 in college costs. "We're finding some sport they excel at" to win a scholarship with, Obama joked, leaving unstated the obvious, that tuition now will be much less of a worry for the Obamas.

A few moments later, when Peter and Jess Ellis, a forest ecologist and a schoolteacher, lamented that she would soon have to leave their young children in day care to go back to work, Obama again sought to make a personal identification, saying he and his wife Michelle (who held a $250,000-per-year hospital administration job before taking a leave for this campaign) had struggled somewhat when he was working as a state legislator and she cut back to working part-time to care for their daughters, at a time when they had such big student loans that they were higher than their mortgage. It was only later on in the discussion that Obama cast himself as one of the "lucky" ones benefiting from an unfair tax structure, saying that he now had a big house that came with a big mortgage interest deduction, whereas when "we were living in the little condo, we couldn't get the same break."

Obama made no attempt at personal identification when it came to the forum's most hard-luck member, Sandra Burt, a 65-year-old woman who recently lost her job at a downsizing electrics manufacturer in Concord and is struggling to pay her share of the $2,900/month medication she is on. Breaking into tears, she said that her husband has been told he has to quit his part-time school bus driving job if they want to qualify for more public assistance, that he had sold his truck for needed cash ("he called it his friend") and that they've turned down the temperature in their double-wide mobile home to 64 degrees to conserve heating fuel. In her case, Obama simply offered words of sympathy and a policy response, noting that she was having to pay so much for her medicines because drug makers fought against price negotiations in the new Medicare drug coverage plan. "There's a direct correlation between the special interest lobbies in Washington and your situation," he told her.

Afterward, Burt said she appreciated Obama's response but was, with her husband, still trying to decide between Obama and Edwards. "It's like buying something, you think 'Do I want this one or that one?'" she said. "They both have such good stands on the issues. We're both torn."

By Washington Post editors  |  December 19, 2007; 4:28 PM ET
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