Obama's Verbal Gutterball
by Todd Beeton, Sat Apr 12, 2008 at 02:26:18 PM EDT
Yesterday was a travel day for me -- I'm back east in CT with my parents for a couple of weeks -- and so I was unable to follow the fallout from Obama's "bitter" comments in real time. I think I'm all caught up now and my primary reaction is "what the hell was he thinking?"
The comments in question, spoken at a San Francisco fundraiser (of all cities...) are as follows:
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. 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. 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. So it's not surprising then that 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.
OK, so, we all know what he meant and perhaps he felt he could be less guarded at an event such as a fundraiser, but come on, the optics of this are really bad. I thought Evan Bayh -- yes a Hillary supporter -- explained why Obama's comments came off as elitist quite well.
"We do have economic hard times, and that does lead to a frustration and some justifiable anger, it's true," Bayh told reporters after introducing Clinton in Indianapolis. "But I think you're on dangerous ground when you morph that into suggesting that people's cultural values, whether it's religion or hunting and fishing or concern about trade, are premised solely upon those kinds of anxieties and don't have a legitimate foundation independent of that."
Jonathan Martin explains why this is likely to stick.
Obama's comments play directly into an already-established narrative about his candidacy. Why did Hillary's Bosnian gaffe cut deep but McCain's Sunni/Shiite mix-up not seem to leave much more than a bruise? Because, fair or not, questions of honesty are the Achilles heel of the Clinton brand while McCain is perceived as strong and knowing on national security. One fit into a framework and the other didn't.
And much ink has already been spilled on Obama's primary shortcomings and potential general election challenges with blue-collar white voters. For him to an offer an inartful explanation of that which informs these people's lives and voting patterns only underlines his weakness with this constituency.
For me, this is just the sort of thing that raises doubts about the discipline of Obama's campaign and his readiness to run a general. Recently he's allayed many of my concerns and my confidence in him as our potential nominee has been growing; this episode has shaken that confidence. First he goes bowling when he doesn't actually know how to bowl and now he sounds as though he's talking down to those that vote on "guns, god and gays." The overall impression one is left with brings memories of John Kerry on a windsurfer crashing back. And this guy's running on judgment?
Now, I must say, as Marc Ambinder notes, Obama is no Kerry; he's more comfortable in his own skin and more surefooted and the way in which Obama has responded swiftly and forcefully to this controversy is better than anything Kerry ever did. You watch Obama take on the story in his stump speech in Indiana and you see how he's able to take lemons and turn them into lemonade.
But in the meantime he has a primary in Pennsylvania to deal with and Hillary Clinton is using Obama's remarks to portray him as elitist and out of touch and herself as in touch with middle American values.
Of course, predictably Obama partisans are slamming Hillary for using the ammunition that he gave her and are attacking the messenger in the comments to the original Mayhill Fowler story over at HuffPo. Funny, I didn't see Obama partisans complaining when Obama attacked Hillary on healthcare using rightwing talking points, but then again many are under the laughable impression that the Obama campaign hasn't attacked Clinton, so I guess that would explain it.
Look, I'm not saying Obama is actually an elitist or is out of touch with every day voters at all. Unfortunately, reality is often beside the point and perception rules and I suspect Obama is losing the perception war here. The fact is, he probably has a more credible claim to the feel your pain mantle than Hillary Clinton does, having spent years as a community organizer in Chicago, but then how has he managed to cede this ground to Clinton? How has he managed to fuel this perception of him that will be used by the right whether Hillary Clinton jumps on it or not? How has he managed to lose control of what for much of 2008 had been quite disciplined messaging? If this does hurt him, whether in the short term or long term, maybe Obama supporters should be looking to their candidate for answers to these questions. In the meantime, we know that this is going to be the topic du jour on the Sunday talkshows tomorrow and no doubt will come up at next week's debate in Philadelphia, so this iteration of this story probably has a good week left in it. It will be interesting to see how Obama deals with this latest speed bump; if he handles it as he did the Wright affair, he just might come out of it stronger than when he went in.