I’m not sure how many voters who aren’t political junkies know the ins and outs of Barack Obama’s biography, but I think the claim that Obama doesn’t talk about this very often is overstated.  He has repeatedly talked up his living overseas and even his college major in international relations as proof of his qualifications and “different kind” of experience (a.k.a., not having foreign policy experience).  His international ancestry was the rhetorical pivot of his speech in Selma.  It seems to me that he has talked (and written) rather incessantly about “his story” ever since the touted 2004 convention speech that launched him on his national career.  His campaign has certainly not failed to draw attention to columns and articles that highlight this aspect of his life.  There are other examples:

He cites his ability to unite the country, his experience living overseas and, when asked, his race.

“I can convene a forum with Muslim leaders, and I will be heard differently from some of the other candidates,” Obama, a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, told Monitor editors and reporters during an hour-and-a-half interview this week. “I can go to a country like Indonesia, where I spent four years as a kid, or Kenya, where I still have a grandmother who lives in a tiny village with no running water and no electricity, and deliver a message that’s tough but compassionate.”  

That makes this interview with Michelle Obama part of the same pattern, rather than something terribly remarkable. 

It’s debatable whether this frequent talk about his biography has aided him or not, but I think it is part of the record that he has talked about it a lot.  I tend to think that it helps him with the voters who are already enthusiastic Obama folks–educated urban professionals–and does nothing for him among other groups of voters whose support he needs to get. 

Obama has had some good lines setting up the “inexperienced but competent” versus “experienced but foolish” dichotomy between himself and the old government hands in the Bush administration and, less successfully, against Clinton.  When he defends his lack of experience as a virtue and proof that he offers a fresh start or a “change,” he does much better than when he tries to dress up living for a couple years in Indonesia as the source of great insights into world affairs.  Frankly, if Obama stopped the biography talk I think it would help him overall.  My impression during the first half of the year was that he was emphasising the personal far too much, leaving himself open to the charge of lacking substance and specific policy ideas.