Monday morning quarterbacking Obama’s “cling” comment

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As one blog pointed out, and I can’t remember the link, the problem with Obama’s comments about rural voters in Pennsylvania was not so much the use of the word “bitter” but his use of the word “cling.” (UPDATE: It may have been Dick Polman who originally made this distinction but even if he didn’t he has now.)

I’ve been dreading having to write this post but as a service to my readers (all 5 of them), I want to sum up what John Baer (more on him later) appropriately calls “the latest diversion of Campaign ’08, a campaign apparently hell-bent on keeping the nation mired in its own stupidity.”

It’s a diversion whose seeds were planted last week and which sprouted into a full-grown venus flytrap threatening to eat every attempt to talk about actual policy and leadership ability.

Where to begin… let’s try the beginning, at least the beginning in the blog-o-world.

As far as I can tell, it all began on Friday morning with this piece by Mayhill Fowler on the Huffington Post (please crowd source this for me and let me know if it appeared earlier). In it, Fowler seems to bury the lead, not getting to the money quote until well into the the post. So let’s get to the quote in question:

And when he spoke to a group of his wealthier Golden State backers at a San Francisco fund-raiser last Sunday, Barack Obama took a shot at explaining the yawning cultural gap that separates a Turkeyfoot from a Marin County. “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,” Obama said. “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.”

Fowler used the first five paragraphs to let everyone know just how friendly Pennsylvanians are and how much Obama seemed to be moved by his trips around the state. Of course, once this quote got out there, it became a race to find audio and video of the “cling” quote.

Almost immediately, Obama’s opponents jumped on this quote – Clinton saying that such quotes continued to reinforce the idea that Democrats are out of touch with working class people and McCain characterizing them as typical liberal elitism and apparently working in some references to the “Greatest Generation” of which he is a part (or is he one of the “Founders Generation?”)

On Friday and over weekend the media portrayal of Obama seems to have shifted from the messianic treatment he received before to a focus on his own “eliteness.” It will be interesting to see how long this lasts and whether this moment, more so than the controversy over remarks by Obama’s pastor, will end up defining Obama in a way that could cost him the general election. With the Wright situation, Obama could distance himself from the comments of an associate and use them to deliver a speech that many said was a spot on explanation of race relations in this country. Not many people thought that Obama himself had the same opinions as his pastor, he was blamed mostly for not speaking out against those opinions when they were uttered.

Now, however, it was the candidate himself who used the words. Now we hear more references to his quote about the price of arugula in Whole Foods. Can he deliver another game-changing speech to explain what he was saying and shed the mantle of “elitist” and “Ivy league educated” (apparently a bad thing)? He’s already done a decent job trying to explain what he meant. In fact, according to Josh Marshall at TPM, Obama had already done a good job of it back in 2004 on Charlie Rose.

Meanwhile, Politico makes the case against Obama as the Democratic nominee (my how far has he fallen?) while Time’s Swampland tries to refute that case with a couple points of its own and argues instead that both candidates are equally weak.

I mentioned John Baer at the top so I wanted to give him the last word since he wrote a really good column about the whole thing and used his perspective as the son of a couple the rural Pennsylvanians over whose opinions and voting habits this whole controversy started. He essentially defends Obama and nearly begs all of us – the media and the voters – not “cling to stupidity.” Baer also reminds us that the candidates attacking Obama for his “elitism” are essentially hurling rocks from their houses of glass:

What’s insulting is the ongoing failure of elected “leaders” to deal with long-term, working-class worries while insuring their own futures with hefty, over-rich pensions.

And, look, what Obama said, given a charged atmosphere close to a critical primary, was ill-advised – not because he’s wrong, but because it changes the discussion.

The 24-hour broadcast-news cycle will jabber on this for days – the irony being that Obama’s “words,” which had positioned him so well, now threaten to trip him up.

Another irony is that the candidate running to effect change where change is needed, and to offer hope to those without it, is suddenly tagged as somehow diminishing those he seeks to serve.

So the question is whether Obama effectively defuses this, as he did the controversy surrounding his former minister. And that remains to be seen.

Just don’t tell me that he insulted a state or, given his background, that he’s an out-of-touch elitist.

And I especially don’t want to hear such arguments from a candidate who spent decades in the bubble of a governor’s mansion, the White House and the U.S. Senate, and under the blanket of $109 million income during the last eight years.

As for me, I’ll let my current Facebook status message do the talking (inspired by Ben Smith):

Dan does not think his time spent in Monroe County PA qualifies him to tell small town Pennsylvanians whether or not they should be outraged at Obama’s comments.

Nor can I tell anyone whether it is true that such people are “bitter.” As a city resident I wonder – what are urban Americans “clinging to?”

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One Response to “Monday morning quarterbacking Obama’s “cling” comment”

  1. Tim Rivers Says:

    It absolutely amazes me that more people cannot see the truth in his remarks – and it is a truth that’s being shown over and over and over again in every blog, every soundbite from Hillary and McCain and every news outlet available.

    Politicians drum up other “issues” to distract people from voting for their own economic interests or, because those interests have been pandered to only for votes and then forgotten after the election time and time and time again, they feel like “Why bother – It’s not going to change anyway!” Numerous times I heard my late father-in-law say “I’m not going to vote because it doesn’t count anyway.” Basically, he was saying that nothing will ever change.

    Sen. Obama did NOT – DEFINITELY NOT – disparage ANYONE’s religion, right to gun ownership or label anyone as a racist. What he did was say exactly what I said in the second paragraph above – That politicians drum up other “issues” (like Candidate “X” is “elitist” or “out of touch” or “doesn’t understand blah, blah, blah”) to deflect voters away from the economy.

    While not his usualy eloquent self (even by his own admission), Sen. Obama showed more empathy and understanding in that statement than any politician I have every seen in my 48 years. What’s more, the resulting “firestorm” over those comments has been a textbook example of what he meant in full action for all to see – as long as you are looking for it. It you want to simply see Sen. Obama as a “racist, out-of-touch, liberl, elitist snob, then that is exactly what you’ll see. If, on the other hand, you look at the complete “issue” in FULL CONTEXT, you will see that he is EXACTLY SPOT ON!

    Talk to the police departments in Illionis about how he reached across the table to listen to, comprehend and have the ability to ask for opposing opinions from them over a bill he pushed through the Illinois State Legislature concerning the video taping of confessions from murder suspects. You will begin to understand what a different approach it truly is. He listened to their opposition, understood where they were coming from and offered acceptable compromises to those sticking points. That is a true leader – not some elitist snob!

    Go Obama!

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