A predictable but basically understandable firestorm has begun over Barack Obama's comments on the "bitterness" of Pennsylvanians. Here is Obama's original statement, made at a fundraiser in California:
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.
Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background — there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.
Here was part of his response Friday night in Indiana:
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?
The second statement at least has the virtue of being semi-coherent; Obama is making Thomas Frank's 'What's the Matter With Kansas' argument, while at the same time playing defense against his rivals. But go back and read the original comment. It ain't pretty. Maybe he was trying to make the Frank argument all along but it is terribly, terribly phrased:
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.
That's why people cling to guns and religion? As for anti-trade sentiment, perhaps Obama is talking about...people like himself, who have spent the last 3 months bashing free trade. Not only is this pretty darn condescending on its face, but the trade comment adds another whole layer of insult. He's almost admitting that he does not believe his previous trade talk!
The other problem is this: Obama was essentially claiming that the reason people are not voting for him is because they are bitter:
So, it depends on where you are, but I think it’s fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people are most cynical about government...They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.
Only a cynic, in other words, could doubt that Barack Obama is going to radically change Washington. I suppose the Obama folks are lucky that this is breaking on a Friday night--and going after McCain is probably the smartest thing they can do--but this is not the story he needs ten days before Pennsylvania.