Dirt off his shoulder

By Tim Murphy

[img id=”80511″ align=”alignleft”] It had been a rough month-and-a-half for Barack Obama. Since the Texas and Ohio primacaucusaries on March 4, he’s jumped from one mini-controversy to another, sometimes with grace, sometimes with agility, and oftentimes with neither. At a stop in Scranton, he bowled a 37 over seven frames and then scored about as well at Wednesday’s ABC debate in Philadelphia, where he was hammered to no end on comments he made, comments his surrogates made, and comments that he once, maybe, heard at his church. He’s dodged a hail of criticism that would make Hillary Clinton’s trip to Bosnia look like a day at the beach (which, come to think of it, it kind of was).

But in a presidential election that has been marred by verbal missteps, psychotic pastors, and, for a little while at least, Fred Thompson, the four most significant words were the ones that were never even spoken:

Brush your shoulders off.

If you blinked, you may have missed it. It came one day after a debate that left pundits both irate and salivating, at the tail end of the flap over bittergate, and one day before John McCain released his tax returns (but not his wife’s). Not “yes we can” or “ready on day one” or “elitist,” or “out-of-touch,” or “unpatriotic”—no, the catchphrase that best explains the tumultuous Democratic primary and why exactly the junior senator from Illinois will win in the fall went unsaid in an auditorium Thursday afternoon in Raleigh, NC.

Addressing the negativity surrounding today’s vote in Pennsylvania, Obama told his audience: “When you’re running for the presidency, then you’ve got to expect it, and you know, you’ve just got to kinda let it…”—at which point he made a sweeping motion with his left and then his right hand, brushing the proverbial dirt off of his shoulders. “You know,” he said, and then repeated the gesture. “You know.” It’s unclear whether or not the 55-year-old white man standing behind him actually did know the reference, but that’s almost beside the point.

Jay-Z has never been much of a player when it comes to presidential politics, but the reference on stage in Raleigh was clear in its intent, echoing the chorus of the rapper’s 2003 hit, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” And although Obama has professed an appreciation for Jay-Z before (he and Beyoncé share file space on the Senator’s iPod), this marks the first time in recent history that a candidate has actually sent a subliminal message to the 18–30 demographic. While most serious candidates make some semblance of an effort to reach out to younger voters, speaking at college campuses and “Rock the Vote” events, there’s a difference between going through the motions, as such events entail, and actually going through the motions, as Obama did on stage on Tobacco Road.

More importantly, though, Obama’s brush with pop culture serves as a reminder that while incendiary sound bites might drive news cycles, the actions that win and lose elections often go relatively unnoticed. When the dust settles in the Keystone State, Obama’s ever-widening fundraising advantage, his sprawling organization, and his embrace of previously muffled voting demographics will all have loomed much larger than anything he or his pastor said. George W. Bush didn’t hit many right notes on his way to reelection in 2004, but a superior get-out-the-vote initiative was enough to grant him another four years. With Obama’s chief opponent nearly mathematically eliminated (whether she admits it or not), it makes perfect sense that a crisis over diction seems like little more than dirt on his shoulders.

Tim Murphy, a Maroon viewpoints editor, is a third-year in the College majoring in history. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Correction: The original column incorrectly stated that Obama bowled a 35 out of a possible 300.