In reporting on Barack Obama's efforts to ward off attacks from his opponents (both Democratic and Republican), Associated Press Writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Charles Babington did a good job of providing the context for the firestorm that ensued:
At issue are comments Obama made privately at a fundraiser in San Francisco last Sunday. He explained his troubles winning over working class voters, saying they have become frustrated with economic conditions:
"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 comments, posted on the Huffington Post political Web site Friday, set off a storm of criticism from Clinton, Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain and other GOP officials. It threatened to highlight an Obama Achilles heel — the image that the Harvard-trained lawyer is arrogant, aloof and carries himself with an air of superiority.
His campaign scrambled to defuse possible damage caused with working class voters that Obama needs to win in upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
"Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois who are bitter," Obama said Saturday morning at Ball State University. "They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through."
"So I said, well you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people, they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country."
After acknowledging that his previous remarks could have been better phrased, he added:
"The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important. That's what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don't feel like they are being listened to.
"And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives, and what we need is a government that is actually paying attention. Government that is fighting for working people day in and day out making sure that we are trying to allow them to live out the American dream."
I suspect that, as I am writing this, the pollsters are already hard at work trying to determine how good a "save" this was for Obama. My own perspective, however, is that Obama was not speaking as a "Harvard-trained lawyer" (arrogant, aloof, or otherwise) but as an astute reader of history. Back when we were just beginning to tally up the real numbers that accounted for the "hidden costs" of the Iraq war, I pointed out that there had been another successful politician in another country who rose to power by emphasizing issues that were not particularly relevant but highly irritating to major sectors of the population. That politician was Adolf Hitler; and the state of the German economy was reflected by postage stamps that had, as I put it, "incredibly large numbers on them."
Now, if Obama had come out and said that the Bush Administration is talking about guns, religion, and immigration the way Hitler talked about the Jews, then he would probably be in really deep yogurt, perhaps too deep to be remedied with any form of damage control. Still, the analogy is worth considering. The weak animal cornered by a predator may still lash out, because there is nothing else to do. Much of Karl Rove's strategy hinged on channeling that need to lash out to the advantage of the Republican Party. Obama reminded us that the majority of the electorate is still in danger of being victimized by any number of predatory practices, but he is trying to appeal to our better natures as an alternative to lashing out in a way that would again benefit the Republicans, rather than the country as a whole. My guess is that, no matter how he framed this point, he would have been attacked for doing so, because he was identifying a systemic problem to which most players in our political processes have contributed in one way or another (including Obama himself). Putting the point on the table at all may have been his most evident act of audacity. In that respect his "rhetorical recovery" should be seen as an attempt to keep the point on the table while defusing his opponents' efforts to use the initial remark to rouse the rabble, so to speak. Since in the past I have accused Obama of invoking the concept of audacity for little more than shallow rhetorical purposes, I now find myself admiring him for finally hauling out a significant instance of the real thing!