Saturday, April 12, 2008

The "Bitter" Truth

Since it's the weekend, the most recent political firestorm may have been missed by many. On Friday afternoon, a story on liberal blog Huffington Post appeared about comments made by Barack Obama to a group of donors in San Francisco. I'll get more into the context later, but when prompted about the cultural divide in America, Obama said this:

"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. 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."

Since this story broke, both the Clinton and McCain campaigns have gone heavily on the offensive while there's been some serious explaining by Obama and his surrogates. Clinton has already gone into the full-court press, telling crowds in Indiana that America "doesn't need a president who looks down on them." McCain, predictably, has painted Obama as an "elitist liberal" the same way George Bush tarnished John Kerry in 2004. For his part, Obama really hasn't backed off the comments, only saying that he "didn't say it as well as I should have" and he feels "deep regret" if people found his comments offensive. Check this out to see his full remarks from a rally in Muncie, Indiana Saturday. One can expect this to be the topic of conversation on the Sunday shows and heading into this important final week before the Pennsylvania primary, which includes an ABC debate in Philadelphia Wednesday.

I feel pretty qualified to deal with this topic, since I come from a middle-class background but I've been around people in my life from the top of the economic ladder and the very bottom. As an observer who's taken a long, hard look at his country not just because of this important election but because I'm coming close to heading out into that country on my own, I look at Obama's comments and I see nothing that misses the mark. I'd agree that it's dangerous to equate economic hardships with 2nd Amendment guarantees and religious devotion, but on the face I think Obama was right on in his assessment of what's happening in small towns.

My hometown of Bartlett, New Hampshire and the neighboring villages in the Valley qualify as "small town America" but, interestingly enough, it's one of the few rural places in America that isn't experiencing economic woes. Because of the ample snowfall the Valley had one of its best winters in recent memory, but how high gas prices will affect summer business remains to be seen. While unemployment levels rise all across the country, it can be reasonably stated that in the Valley if you are over the age of 14 and don't have a job it's because you're either 1. an idiot, 2. incredibly lazy, or 3. disabled in some other way.

The quality of that job, however, is always a concern. I think it can also be reasonably stated that because of the makeup of the Valley's economy and its reliance on service jobs, it can be hard for people who aren't in business ownership or management to get by. This is where we see the erosion of the middle class. The purchasing power and personal economic comfort that middle class-members experienced in the Valley 10 or 15 years ago have gone away as their wages have stayed roughly the same. When political candidates talk about restoring the middle class, this is what they mean. While there used to be people at the top, middle and bottom, now there's people at the top and people who used to be in the middle getting sucked into the bottom.

As I said, people in the Valley are lucky because there's no shortage of actual jobs. In places like Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio as Obama spoke of, Americans are losing industrial jobs that, as Obama realistically points out on the campaign trail, aren't coming back. I'll be returning to the Red Parka Pub to work this summer, and I feel pretty safe that my job waiting tables won't be outsourced to New Delhi.

The long and short of this is that Barack Obama is right in his comments, and he shouldn't back off them. People are without a doubt bitter about losing their jobs, the economic downturn, the war in Iraq, and the overall humiliation of George Bush's White House tenure. When these people get bitter, they "cling" to the things they can justify being devoted to, like religion and firearms, and hate things they may not understand or like on the social level. It's not just immigration or trade deals, but things like gay marriage or abortion that they get passionate about. It's not like Obama made these claims up out of thin air. As I mentioned in my last Musing, Obama spend six days getting down and dirty with the rural folks in Pennsylvania. Obama is a gifted listener, and this is what people told him. So when liberal donors in California wanted to know about what goes through the minds of rural Pennsylvanians, he told those donors the truth. He started a dialog about it. He sees it as a problem, and promises to lead the fight to find a solution. The other campaigns, and to a certain extent the media, have misconstrued these comments as being divisive when in my opinion this is yet another example of Obama expressing a deep understanding of the American people that most average politicians miss. The negative controversy of him saying that people in America are "bitter" is not his opinion, it's a statement of fact.

Much like the negative backlash that some gave him after his race speech last month, Barack Obama is being lambasted all across the political landscape for doing what he does best: Telling the truth to get people talking about important issues. He gets criticized for doing what politicians should be doing. Now that's something to be bitter about.

The most disingenuous thing to come out of this is the reaction from Hillary Clinton and her camp (I know, big surprise). They have called Obama's remarks "condescending," "damaging," "small-minded," "elitist," and "out of touch." Worst and most astonishing of all, Hillary seems convinced that people she's met on the campaign trail are not "bitter" about what's happened in America and its direction going forward. How is that possible? Do Clinton campaign lackeys hand out happy pills to everyone in the crowd before her speeches? Does she emit some paranormal scent that makes former factory workers in Indiana and Pennsylvania forget about how much their lives suck whenever they talk to her? And where does she get off calling Obama "elitist" when her tax records show she and Bill made $109 million since they left the White House? Seriously, I want an explanation. How pathetic are the people wearing "I'm Not Bitter!" pins at Hillary rallies today? Is that the best they could think of on short notice? If you hate Hillary as much as I do, see if you can sit through her speech on Obama's comments from Saturday without X-ing out of the window before it ends. Do your worst.

Make no mistake: Obama is definitely in a pickle, and he needs to tread smartly going forward, which I have no doubt he will do. He had been quietly gaining ground on Clinton in recent Pennsylvania polls, with this Zogby poll showing just a 4-point advantage for Clinton with 10 percent still undecided. Many had predicted Obama would be leading in the polls by the end of this coming week, but those predictions must go on hold for now. Clinton is certain to fire up the spin machine even more this week, and luckily there will be a debate Wednesday that is certain to provide Obama with a chance to really talk to people in Pennsylvania about this and other important issues. I believe Hillary will win on April 22 but the margin won't be enough to give her a significant push in delegates.

And if Obama doesn't win, at least he has a Jedi on his side.

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