Nobody likes a smarty pants: Why Warren and Obama irk pundits so much

Professorial, scold, elitist, lecturing, strident and schoolmarmish are a sampling of the talking head critiques

President Barack Obama (R) speaks during a presser while Elizabeth Warren (C) listens in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Barack Obama (R) speaks during a presser while Elizabeth Warren (C) listens in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren has never succeeded in charming the pundit class, which tends to describe her in oh-so-flattering terms like professorialscold, elitist, lecturing, strident and schoolmarmish (she was a Harvard professor before being elected as a senator, in case you couldn’t tell by these pejoratives).

After covering this primary for the last approximately 12,000 years (or 14 months, who’s counting?), I can say that’s completely detached from reality. But unfortunately, some of the attacks have been echoed by rivals like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

If you’ve been to Warren’s rallies, she specializes in homespun tales (told in a faint drawl, not a JFK-esque Hah-vahd lilt) of her working-class upbringing in Oklahoma, her difficulty juggling teaching and parenthood and her brothers’ military service. She also typically spends a lot of time taking audience questions — which is fairly unusual for a presidential candidate — not to mention devoting hours to taking selfies with fans (and talking to them, too).

Not terribly surprisingly, pundits have basically declared Warren’s candidacy dead, even though only two small states have voted (and my former home of Iowa didn’t exactly do a bang-up job running things).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaking at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaking at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa (photo by Lorie Shaull, Wikimedia Commons)

The Warren stereotypes are gendered, to be sure. But many political analysts also sniffed at Barack Obama for many of the same reasons (yes, he went to Harvard Law and was a law professor before joining the Senate).

Obama knows Warren well, having hired her to head up the new Consumer Protection Agency (which the Trump administration has done its best to neuter), an attempt to hold corporations accountable after the Great Recession and actually help regular people.

The common thread between them is that they’re usually the smartest people in any room — something that particularly irks pundits who pretend to be experts on all manner of policy (but usually are just glorified theater critics).

Who could forget the endless takes from shallow centrist analysts that aloof, arrogant Obama was the reason why Republicans in Congress refused to compromise on anything, from the stimulus to save the economy in 2009 to gun reforms after first-graders were annihilated at Sandy Hook in 2012.

In reality, the GOP was going off the rails, with Trump and others pushing racist birther conspiracies against Obama — something too many pundits didn’t truly grasp until he won the presidency in 2016 (and some still don’t today).

As for Warren, her supposed stuffy intellectualism fueled many of the gleeful takedowns of her Medicare for All plan, which was subjected to nonstop questions of, “How ya gonna pay for it?” and eye rolls about its feasibility.

This sticks out because there’s another big candidate in the race with his own Medicare for All plan — Sanders, who somehow skated on both fronts. Naturally, the Vermont senator’s gruff persona isn’t for everyone, and he has plenty of media enemies. But Larry David’s dead-on, endearing imitation doesn’t hurt and plenty of crusty analysts probably see more than a bit of themselves in Sanders, regardless of his lefty politics.

So let’s just get down to it.

While it’s undoubtedly progress to have had our first African American president and more women running for the office, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that women and people of color don’t face different rules and particular constraints (the current field would be a lot more diverse, otherwise).

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Seven candidates out of the crowded field qualified for the 6th and last Democratic presidential primary debate of 2019 hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 19: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

And one of those is that you’re not supposed to act like you know more than the media covering you (even if you almost certainly do).

I honestly don’t think that Warren comes off that way, but the hot-take industry is still a bastion of straight, rich white males, some of whom interpret every syllable from her as a personal affront. In debates, she strikes me as the proverbial girl in the front row who patiently raises her hand, but the teacher keeps calling on the bored boys in the back (yes, this is incredibly relatable to me).

Naturally, my critique will be met with sniggering from some who worship at the altar of The-Way-Things-Have-Always-Been analysis, and are deeply uncomfortable to see casual sexism and racism slammed, lest their own behavior come under scrutiny.

But the country is changing. The media can’t afford to remain a largely reactionary institution, because otherwise, we’re going to miss a lot of important stories this cycle. Indeed, we already have.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.