Saturday, April 12, 2008

Obama on the rubes whose votes he unfortunately needs

Well, Barack Obama has certainly raised a firestorm when he told a wealthy group of San Francisco donors what he really thinks is driving voters in the Midwest. He starts off by trying to deny the accusation that there is a racial divide in the Democratic Party and then to explain what he believes is really in the minds of working class citizens.
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. The people are mis-appre…they’re misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wanna work — don’t wanna vote for the black guy.’ That’s…there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today - kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.

Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long. 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.

But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What is the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is so we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — to close tax loopholes, uh you know uh roll back the tax cuts for the top 1%, Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to uh middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide healthcare for every American.

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. 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.
So, how is he going to answer this bitterness that supposedly is driving these voters? As Michael Barone comments, both Obama and Clinton are resorting to standard Democratic lines about raising taxes on the rich and stopping free trade.
On fiscal policy, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want higher taxes, at least on high earners. They want to let at least some of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, as scheduled. On trade, they oppose new free-trade agreements and want to renegotiate nafta with Canada and Mexico. As it happens, another president embraced such policies in a time of economic slowdown and financial market turbulence: Herbert Hoover raised taxes on high earners sharply and, ignoring a letter signed by 1,000 economists, signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930. The results were not pretty. Until now, his example has not commended itself to Democrats. One wonders whether voters will agree that tax increases will stimulate the economy.
But what is really remarkable about this quote of what Obama told his audience of San Francisco rich folk is how he displayed, perhaps unconsciously, his contempt for those very people whose votes he wants to win. First he implies that they're racist citing the difficulty they might have when the message is "delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism."

It was a blogger at Huffington Post, Mayhill Fowler, who first posted the transcript and audio of Obama's talk at the San Francisco fundraiser. And she wasn't happy about how he was portraying Pennsylvanians to his California donors.
I'm not sure this is what at least this lot of Californians needed to hear about Pennsylvanians. Such phrases can reinforce negative stereotypes among Californians, who are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known.
Apparently, Obama thinks that these people in industrial states only adopted their values and political positions because the economy in their area started to decline.
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.
Let's unpack that, shall we? Isn't there more of a likelihood that these people believed in gun rights even when the economy was doing better? And how does he square this explanation of why someone might "cling to guns" with his attempts to convince Pennsylvanians that he supports gun rights?

Did they turn to religion because of the economy? Might they not just be sincere believers? In Obama's view, do people become religious only because they have a grievance? That certainly seemed to play into his defense of Jeremiah Wright's diatribes against white America.

What does he mean when he refers to their "antipathy to people who aren't like them?" Is he calling them racist, nativist homophobes? And when he calls them anti-immigrant, might he not acknowledge that plenty of people have legitimate concerns about the vast numbers of illegal immigrants coming into our country? Obama himself has called for stronger enforcement at our borders. Is that because he's just catering to these bitter voters? Or is it because he believes that to be the right policy?

And what does he mean about saying that they are anti-trade because they've been beaten down? He's been one of the most anti-trade candidates out there, slamming Hillary for her supposed support for NAFTA and opposing the Colombian free trade agreement. Was Austan Goolsbee correct when he hinted to Canadian diplomats that Barack Obama didn't really mean what he said about trying to renegotiate NAFTA? Is Obama just demagoguing the issue or is he one of those bitter voters also?

I think that Tom Maguire is onto something when he describes Obama as the mirror of our desire, a Harry Potterish-Mirror of Erised in whom supporters see exactly what they wish most to see in a candidate.
Obama's basic message is that he is a smart and reasonable guy who will reach out to people representing a wide range of views and bring them together to bring about "change".

But what people actually hear is something somewhat different, namely, "Obama is smart and reasonable and he will listen to me; since my ideas are smart and reasonable, he will ultimately embrace them as his own".
Or maybe he's just using a Jedi mind trick. (I can't believe that animation was on the site of the Raleigh News and Observer, definitely not a right-wing newspaper!)

Marc Ambinder
tries to defend Obama's remarks as intellectual musings based on Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas.
In Obama's version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting.
Then those nasty Republicans come along and exploit those insecurities and deceive the working class voters into voting Republican. What never enters into this analysis is the possibility that people have become skeptical of the ability of Democratic economic proposals of helping to turn around the economies of their communities. Or perhaps people are not Marxian robots only motivated by their material status.

Obama tried to smooth over the controversy that has erupted over his remarks in San Francisco by rephrasing his point.
“When you’re bitter, you turn to what you can count on,” he said at a Town Hall Meeting on the last day of his 3-day Indiana bus tour. “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 into this country. Or they get frustrated about, you know, how things have changed. That’s a natural response.”

“And I didn’t say it as well as I should have, because the truth is 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 want to feel like they’re being listened to.”
Tom Maguire doesn't buy the idea that this is, as Obama said, "a typical sort of political flareup."
Hmm, how typical is it for a candidate to characterize a huge swath of his target voters as bigoted, gun waving religious fanatics? I'll bet that in Dem strategy sessions run by law school alums, it's pretty typical!
Yup, he's right that he didn't express it as well as he could have. When talking to his wealthy San Francisco supporters religion and gun rights are things that people "cling to" when they're bitter. As John Hinderaker points out,
In Obama's cleaned-up version, religion ("faith") becomes something small town people "can count on," along with community and family, rather than something they "cling to" on account of being "bitter," along with guns and hatred of immigrants and others "who aren't like them." That's a nice try, I guess, but it's hard to believe it will fool anyone.
Conservatives have long expected that Democratic politicians have a contempt for the working class voters. I think the whole Thomas Frank thesis is strongly condescending. And Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers spills the beans that Obama's comments express a common attitude among liberal elites.
“It comes off very badly,” Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers said of Obama’s small-town America remarks. “They are things that I think in a liberal world sound totally normal, and outside of that world I don’t know that he appreciates how it sounds. And it just sounds very elitist, and it sounds like he’s looking down on people.”
Yup, what sounds "totally normal" in a "liberal world" doesn't sound as peachy keen in the outside world.

Obama might get away with all of this. But this whole controversy arising a week and a half before Pennsylvania's primary might help Hillary regain some of the ground that she lost there. And John McCain is not letting this opportunity to slip by.
Asked to respond, McCain adviser Steve Schmidt called it a "remarkable statement and extremely revealing."

"It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," Schmidt said. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."
Just what Obama didn't need as the campaign moves into Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina, states full of small town voters who might not like that tone of condescension from a Harvard lawyer whose wife complains about having to spend $10,000 a year on extracurricular activities for their children. Of course, whether Hillary can benefit from a reaction against condescension remains to be seen.

UPDATES: Victor Davis Hanson analyzes how Obama has carefully changed the meaning of the statement in his rephrasing of the comment yesterday. Going phrase by phrase, Hanson demonstrates how different what Obama is saying now is from what he orignally said.