Saturday, November 1, 2008

Obama explains the comments that spawned "bittergate"

--> Barack Obama recently offered an explanation for his spring 2008 comments about bitter small-town voters. Obama's story got told in a front-page article in a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine. Journalist Matt Bai, in the story titled, "Can Obama Close the Deal with those White Guys?" recounts what he calls bittergate, when Obama said to a small group of Bay Area donors that "small-town voters in Pennsylvania and other states had grown 'bitter' over lost jobs, which caused them to 'cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." The comment soon wound up on the Huffington Post, and it certainly did not help Obama in some of the rural state primaries that soon followed. Bai reports that Obama has called this episode "my biggest boneheaded move," while offering this explanation:
“How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”
* * *
“I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, ‘You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong' . . . . Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that.”
It's a great explanation, and I hope it is true. It would mean that Obama, like too few others, really is trying to unite our country.

Bai's story is, in fact, a gold mine of information about the culture wars and the rural-urban divide with which they have come to be associated. Indeed, I didn't make reading the story a priority when it first landed on my doorstep almost two weeks ago because no mention of rurality was made in the headline. (The same is true of the story's online billing, varyingly "Working for the Working-Class Vote" and "Will Gun-Toting, Churchgoing Guys Pull the Lever for Obama?") But a quick search of the article reveals 19 uses of the word "rural," including a great deal of information about what Obama has done to cultivate the rural vote, including visit (sometimes repeatedly) rural places like Elko, Nevada, and setting up campaign offices in some even-more-obscure locales. The story discusses, for example, how Obama's rural strategy tracks that of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and it reports in great detail on how Obama courted voters in one Appalachian community, Lebanon, Virginia. Here's a partial description of Obama's campaign event in that town which, in my opinion, depicts a masterful politician who at least knows what some of the big issues are for rural Americans.
A teenage girl asked Obama what he might do specifically for rural America. I found it odd that Obama had to be prompted to address this question, but he warmed to it immediately, ticking off a list of public investments that his administration could bring to the region: broadband lines, school financing, the development of biodiesel fuels. He talked about creating more jobs for local students, “so when they graduate from college those kids can stay here and live in Lebanon instead of having to go and work someplace else.”
Obama then continued, “One thing I want to make clear while we’re on this topic of rural America . . . . There are a lot of folks who come up to me and say, ‘You know, Barack, I like your economic plan, and I’m tired of George Bush, but you know, I got my N.R.A. mailing, and I’m worried you’re gonna take my gun away.’ ”

Bai also interviewed U.S. Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, who downplayed the role of race and played up Obama's ability to "share the same basic small-town values." As Webb expressed it, the questions are, "does he understand me?" and "can I trust him?" Clearly Obama's responses to the questioner in Lebanon suggest he is attempting to communicate that he does understand. In any event, I'll be keeping an eye on the Lebanon vote.

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