Obama on Guns, God, and Hate in Rural America
Barack Obama’s foray into pop psychology, trying to explain why rural Pennsylvanians aren’t warming to him and are asking him to talk more about patriotism, is causing quite the stir in the blogosphere.
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
The complete transcript of these remarks is available at The Page. Reading them in context does not change their meaning.
Not surprisingly, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain quickly pounced.
“Barack Obama apparently believes that for Americans less privileged than him, religion is an economic-based and not faith-based condition,” Mark Salter, a senior campaign adviser for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tells ABC News. “It is hardly news that Senator Obama’s ‘new’ approach to politics is based on the presumption that voters are easily fooled,” Salter continues, “but the arrogance and elitism he shows here is truly astonishing, and very revealing about how he would govern this country.”
In Philly, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, implies that Obama “looks down on” these small town Pennsylvanians. “I saw in the media it’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter,” Clinton said this afternoon. “Well, that’s not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard everyday for a better future, for themselves and their children.
“Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them, they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.”
John Hinderaker asks, “Is Obama’s campaign over? ” He answers himself: “It may be. I don’t see how anyone known to have uttered these words can be elected President.”
Andrew Sullivan won’t go that far but concedes these were “not the most felicitously phrased” remarks.
You can see the point he is trying to make – it’s the Thomas Frank argument – and you can argue about its merits, back and forth. I don’t think it’s meant pejoratively about the blue collar workers Obama is trying to engage. But the context of these remarks is political gold for McCain and Clinton. Especially Clinton. You will hear these words on Fox News for a very, very long time.
Tom Maguire believes “This ices the Wright cake – I don’t think Hillary can stop him, but Obama is not electable.”
Isaac Chotiner is more low key, simply noting, “this is not the story [Obama] needs ten days before Pennsylvania.”
Mickey Kaus points out an amusing irony: “Isn’t Obama the one who has been clinging to religion lately? Does he cling to his religion for authentic reasons while those poor Pennsylvania slobs cling to it as a way to ‘explain their frustrations’?”
Obama stands by his remarks and doubles down. Here’s video of his response:
The key ‘graphs:
“And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we’re going to make your community better. We’re going to make it right and nothing ever happens. And of course they’re bitter. Of course they’re frustrated. You would be too. In fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur. The same thing has happened all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you. And so people end up- they don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington. So I made this statement– so, here’s what rich. Senator Clinton says ‘No, I don’t think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know, I think Barack’s being condescending.’ John McCain says, ‘Oh, how could he say that? How could he say people are bitter? You know, he’s obviously out of touch with people.’
“Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain—it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch? Senator Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I’m out of touch? No, I’m in touch. I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania. I know what’s going on in Indiana. I know what’s going on in Illinois. People are fed-up. They’re angry and they’re frustrated and they’re bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States of America.”
He’s certainly right that a lot of people are bitter and angry. And, frankly, he’s right that the same people are the ones who are most bitter about illegal immigration and most likely to own rifles and shotguns and go to church.
Marc Ambinder is exactly right here:
We’re dealing tonight with a classic Kinsleyian “gaffe,” where a candidate says what he means and then is forced to account for it. Let’s separate, for the moment, the politics of Obama’s words from the argument he is making.
The substance of what Obama said has the makings of a very good Firing Line broadcast. (Alas…)
The elite media and most Democrats will say… “yeah.. .So? Obama is simply describing world as we know it.” His opponents and people who are inclined to view Obama as an elitist will say, “he is dismissing the culture and religion of working class whites.”
Indeed, the responses to Obama’s words have proven (to Obama allies) a part of his argument. Conservatives are already portraying Obama as liberal, elite, out of touch with the values of ordinary Americans — exactly the type of legerdemain that Obama was pointing to.
So there’s a debate to be had about substance.
But the politics are unquestionably dangerous for a candidate whose appeal depends on him transcending traditional political adjectives like “liberal” or “elite.”
Despite his working class upbringing, Obama’s hyperconfidence sometimes translates as holier-than-thou, elitist, aristocratic, Dukakis-esque. Republicans know that these attributes aren’t popular in middle America, so they will use every opportunity to remind independents and moderates about them.
John Podhoretz reminds us that this was absolutely predictable: “Well, it has finally happened. Barack Obama has done what Democratic candidates for president invariably do — he has revealed the profound sense of unearned superiority that is the sad and persistent hallmark of contemporary liberalism.”
Despite the mythology that the Republicans are “the party of the rich,” they have, since at least Dwight Eisenhower, nominated presidential candidates who understand and have appeal to rural America. While the Democrats’ base includes some of the poorest Americans, they have been nominating mostly big city wonks since, oh, Woodrow Wilson. (The two notable exceptions, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did quite well with Middle America.) And that reflects in their attitudes on the campaign trail.
Class bias works both ways. Urban elites tend to view rural America, especially Southerners, as a bunch of yahoos. Rural Americans, meanwhile, think big city types are elitist snobs who don’t love America. There are similar resentments between rich and poor, educated and not, and even Ivy League -State College. In private gatherings, where people think they are among the like-minded, one hears shocking bigotry along those lines.
There’s a huge cultural divide that’s been with us since well before (and, indeed, was a major factor in causing) the Civil War. Great national crises, like World War II and the 9/11 attacks, bridge those divides but only temporarily. And the permanent campaign that has characterized our politics in recent years continues to poke a stick at these wounds.
Obama will survive these remarks, although they’ll likely cost him any chance at rallying to win Pennsylvania. He’s still the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination. But it’s the hope that something like this or the Wright brouhaha will take away his aura that explains why Hillary Clinton continues to hang around.
Ed Morrissey says that, “Only a rookie would make a colossal blunder like calling Midwestern, small-town voters a bunch of bigoted, overly religious gun nuts. Rookies should not run for President.” While I wouldn’t go that far, Ed’s at least aiming in the right direction.
The more we learn about Obama, the less saintly he appears. That was inevitable, of course; he’s just a man. But he’s had a huge advantage coming into this race as simultaneously a superstar and a virtual unknown. He’s been able to inspire people with his rhetoric while being sufficiently vague that those who “hope” for “change” could paint their own picture and have him be just the change they were hoping for. As the long campaign forces him to reveal more of himself, though, it’ll be far easier to campaign against him.
It’s too bad that John Mellencamp has forbidden the McCain campaign to use his songs. “Small Town,” which Maguire evokes in his post title, both reinforces and rebuts Obama’s comments.
Here’s video of him performing it, ironically enough, at the 2004 Democratic Convention:
All my friends are so small town
My parents live in the same small town
My job is so small town
Provides little opportunity
Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be
Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, and that’s good enough for me
That pretty much covers it, doesn’t it?