Bitter Politics: When a Gaffe is Not a Gaffe

Last year Barack Obama was the untouchable Golden Boy of American politics. He was the good-looking candidate who represented the next generation of national leaders and had the right name, the right demographics, the right message, and the right biography. America had never seen such a politician before. The excitement surrounding his candidacy led to musings about the second coming of John Kennedy or the political version of Tiger Woods.

How things have changed.

While Obama has come very close to punching his ticket to a date with John McCain in the presidential finals, America's Golden Boy has left the political stratosphere for more earthly territory. While he is still generally liked and is seen as offering something entirely different from what voters are accustomed to, his political opponents are no longer as intimidated by him as they once were. Some of the Obama mystique has worn off, and a larger portion of his support comes not from admiration of him, but rather from the fact that he is "not Hillary Clinton."

Despite his impressive victories in the primaries and caucuses post-Super Tuesday, the past two months have been particularly tough for Obama. He has been the victim of friendly fire in the form of unforced errors and collateral damage at the hands of his allies:

First, Michelle Obama created a mini-firestorm by saying "for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country." Nobody really believed that Michelle Obama hated the United States as much as Osama bin Laden, but her politically clumsy remarks portrayed her as being insufficiently patriotic.

Then came Barack Obama himself who referred to his grandmother as a "typical White person" in the context of harboring pervasive stereotypes that had existed decades ago. These three words could easily be construed as racially insensitive and stood to threaten Obama's coalition of White support.

These three words were significant because they came on the heels of three more words from his longtime pastor and spiritual adviser Jeremiah Wright that had offended far more people. Until this point, Obama was still seen as being a post-racial unity candidate. However, hearing "God Damn America" brought up a lot of questions about Obama's "judgment" and threatened to turn him into a younger version of Jesse Jackson--a political death sentence.

The latest inflammatory remarks from Obama came this week when Obama referred to rural Whites as "bitter." Here's the main quote:

"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 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."
Needless to say, rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain were outraged.

As a result of these controversies and gaffes, Obama has developed a bit of a perception problem. Has Mr. Unity become Mr. Elitist? That seems to be the consensus among the chattering classes (more reactions here and here). However, could it be that these "gaffes" are making Obama a more appealing candidate who, by the same token, is challenging voters to elevate themselves?

To start, Obama is not bowing to his political enemies' demands. When he was called upon to denounce Jeremiah Wright for his controversial remarks, he did not do so as strongly as his opponents would have liked and refused to throw Wright under the bus. When Michelle Obama said she was "proud of her country for the first time in her adult life," neither she nor Obama took the "mea culpa" route even though his opponents were making political hay out of it, as did Cindy McCain. After awkwardly referring to his grandmother as "a typical White person," he rolled her out in one of his campaign ads. And now after making remarks that may have offended voters in rural America, Obama has again refused to back down. He owned up to the awkwardness of his original remarks, but did not let that prevent him from making his larger point.

Obama's detractors may say he has a pattern of being an anti-White, America-bashing liberal elitist who doesn't respect Middle America. But more often than not, these remarks are coming from people who likely were never going to vote for him anyway. While the case could be made to support these insinuations, Obama's refusal to cower, reject, denounce, and throw his surrogates overboard at his opponents' beck and call could also display a bit of self-confidence and toughness that made the current president so popular. This toughness and sense of self-assurance would help him counter the perception advantage John McCain has in this regard.

On top of this, when taken in the proper context, both Michelle Obama and Jeremiah Wright raise valid points and challenge Americans to avoid knee-jerk thinking. The same could be true about Obama's "typical White person" and "bitter" remarks as well. It is easy to be offended by choice soundbytes and individual words that would not be nearly as offensive if they are part of a larger, more powerful message.

Obama was making the point that rural voters, who tend to be less educated and less well off financially, often vote against their economic self-interests because their frustrations lead them to take their anger out at the ballot box on immigrants, gun-grabbers, abortionists, and non-Christians. These voters in rural Pennsylvania, the swamps of Alabama, the foothills of Kentucky, and the backcountry of Oregon are angry about the price of healthcare, the layoffs at the local mills and factories, and the budget cuts concerning their failing public school systems. In contrast with these negative indicators, pride in their families and country, their faith in God, and their Second Amendment rights are important bright spots in their lives and communities.

Republicans are seen as the protectors of "American values," which presumably include gun rights, a more public Christianity, and unconditional patriotism. However, under Republican stewardship, the economy has soured and a lot of Americans are greatly dissatisfied with the way things are going. So even though "American values" may still be intact in these communities, the jobs are shutting down or going overseas, salaries aren't keeping up with the cost of living, gas prices are two or three times more expensive than they were at the start of the decade, and too many people can't even afford to get sick because of a lack of access to healthcare or an inability to pay for it. If these rural voters continue to place their social concerns over their economic concerns or if they let their anger about "pressing 1 for English" supersede their anger about why their schools are falling behind, then nothing will change for them. This, I believe, is what Obama is arguing.

So Obama has once again potentially angered White voters who don't live in the traditional liberal enclaves of New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Their anger would be justified, as Obama's remarks seem condescending on their face. However, even though it makes a convenient talking point or wedge issue, this is not new to voters. Bush vs. Kerry was the latest installment of the "regular American" against the "out-of-touch elitist." And this battle takes place in state and local elections across the country every election cycle.

Here's the way the economy is being framed now: One candidate is out of touch with his rhetoric (Obama) while the other is out of touch with his actual policies (McCain). Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) are hoping that voters penalize Obama for his words even though his actual policies would undoubtedly have more of an influence on their actual lives.

Voters respond to messages in different ways. What may offend one voter may soothe another. It seems that Obama is challenging voters to get beyond blinding superficiality and focus on the larger meaning of politics. It may be politically risky, as Republicans are surely licking their chops over these latest remarks, but it also plays right into Obama's message of "a different kind of politics." Instead of telling voters what they want to hear every time like some kind of miracle worker, he's actually challenging voters to reassess their role in the whole political process. It remains to be seen how effective this approach is, but for better or worse, Obama certainly appears to be offering something that neither Clinton nor McCain can match.

11 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Great topic Anthony...You are right that those who weren't going to vote for Obama are the ones harping on these gaffes. I know of white republicans and atheist liberals who are no longer in his camp because of his "religion". It may not be fair but it is what it is. They don't care what his policies are, his church has turned them off, because while no one believes that Michelle Obama hates the US as much as Osama Bin Laden...it isn't that far of a stretch to assume that perhaps she does if she attends a church that preaches that america has nothing to be proud of. Also it drives me crazy to hear Obama talk about jobs going over seas. His solution is to provide tax breaks for those who hire within the United States. This already exists. My husband works for a tax consulting company that gives R& D tax credits to manufacturers who keep jobs in america. Bush has already enacted this policy. This is extremely misleading. Unles he is going to try to push for some sort of illegality of jobs overseas then he is misstating the reality. Many companie have no idea that these refunds and credits are available, that is why companies like the one the hubby works for are in existence. Great read as usual! :)N

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I've been reading about these "bitter" remarks that Obama made, about Clinton's outrage, and about McCain's charge of elitism.

There's one problem for Hillary and John: Many Americans ARE bitter!

I'm sorry that people cannot come to terms with themselves about that, but Obama is right...as harsh as that sounds.

Four years of Bush, NCLB, Iraq Wars, "undercover phone tapping," and other picky issues might make people get turned off to the democratic process in general.

I think Clinton and McCain are going to regret this line of attack that they are making because they are really in denial themselves as if their placating the voters with their "outrage" will be endearing.

I think voters are smarter than that. They can smell the strategy and "game" that both are playing.


Nikki said...

Reginald I have to disagree with you...from the sound bite it sounds as though when people are bitter they turn to religion and when they aren't bitter they turn to government? I am not sure what he means. In the end what I know doesn't matter is what he meant, what matters is what he said, because "words matter". He sounds like someone who wants a government reliant people and he is the answer. Sorry I am not buying it and yes it turned me off in a big way. Just being honest. But of course I wasn't going to vote for him anyway. :)N

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

Great Post.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...


Once, again, it puzzles me where you get the idea that Obama (or any politician) thinks that people should "rely on him" like a crutch. Again, I think he and any other presidential nominee (McCain included) should feel that they should make a difference inspiration-wise and policy-wise in the government and in the lives of citizens; however, for a presidential hopeful to say that he/she is "the answer" is too arrogant. I think, again, all of the nominees are smart enough to never make such a declaration. I'm bewildered as to where you get this idea from.

I just heard on NPR's All Things Considered today where Hillary Clinton made a stop in some working class town Pennsylvania town--I forget which one--and made her "stump" speech criticizing Obama's bitter remarks.

The newscaster reported that many of her audience members "did not buy it." In fact, one lady actually told the reporter that voters ARE indeed bitter.

The only reason why this is an issue is because Hillary and McCain made it an issue.

I don't think most people care about these parsing of words in the long run; they want to hear about the issues.


Nikki said...

Hey Reginald, it puzzles you because you are a supporter. Where I think there is a problem is with the crossover voters that were in the Obama camp. They are a flaky bunch. His comments imply that small town people hate immigrants, and if they had jobs they could love illegal immigration. The implication is that if all were well then these issues would be in agreement with him. So illegal immigration republicans are only angry and the argument isn't how they truly feel. That is elitist and that is what I read into it...and I think it is hurting him among possible republican voters who felt welcome in his camp. They no longer feel welcome. It won't effect the base, but Hillary is right it will affect the moderates and she is smart to welcome the shaky undecided voter. :)N

Reginald Harrison Williams said...


No,the reason it baffles me is because your ascertion is just that...baffling, not because I'm a supporter. I have lots of reservations about all of three candidates; I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for.

Like you and lots of other people, I can be objective, too.

I don't think Obama's comments imply that small town people hate immigrants. I work in a small town (with plenty of Republicans) and there are lots (not all) of bitter voters here, but they don't hate immigrants. I think that's an inaccurate overgeneralization.

I think the affect of his comments on Republicans is overblown. I'm sure that there are many who never were in Obama's camp while others like McCain. Still others, fed up with McCain and repulsed by Clinton, may well vote for Obama because they think he has a point. I think McCain and Clinton are HOPING this affects Obama's support among Republicans, but they really don't know.

Even speaking about such an outcome is, I think, rather disrespectful to the GOP voters because it's like they can be controlled by Clinton/McCain's rhetoric. That's ridculous. These voters like all voters have a mind of their own. They can tell the difference between pointless political mudslinging and the real issues.

I think that if Clinton/McCain had not labeled Obama as a so-called elitist, this would have never come up. Nobody would care. It's exactly what it is: a desperate attempt. Quarrelling over words like this is dangerous and damaging to the person(s) who start(s) the fight.

People can tell the difference; otherwise, Obama would have felt much more of a hit. Instead, the camp is divided, and--like the Reverend Wright issue--it will soon plateau as people truly think through the situation and see it for what it is...silly political opportunism. Then it's back to the important things: the issues, not Reverend Wright, or Hillary's "Fake" Story, or McCian's gaffes...just the issues.

Everybody needs to focus on the issues at hand, not these silly he said-she said stuff. The more Clinton/McCain/Obama do this, the more they look desperate.

I think the voters can and will tell the difference for themselves.


Nikki said...

Reginald, I am sorry I assumed you were an Obama supporter. Still I don't think that conservatives and Hillary supporters who are hopping on this statement are doing so because of petty mudslinging. He was offensive to small town rural voters who vote conservatively based on religious beliefs. It is elitist to assume that if they just were more informed or had different officials in office then they would not cling to these beliefs. You don't get votes from church-going gun owners who want closed safe borders by calling them bitter and wrong. There is no reinventing the wheel. While I think that most voters are basically intelligent, there are people who will not try to read between the lines in this statement. For me I have 2 simple requirements for my vote. Taxes and war on terror. That's it. He fails on both. And if he misspeaks then yes I am going to jump on it because those who sit on the fence should jump to the other side. Bush is known for raping American ears with his mispronunciations and misstatements, it is only fair to dissect this Presidential candidate when he says something offensive. And it was offensive to those in rural Amreica. Again I didn't man to assume you were in the Obama camp. It just seems like any conversation I have over here at the 7-10 is with an Obama supporter...:)N

Anthony Palmer said...

Every politician has his merits and demerits, and the same holds true for Obama. The 7-10 is not a pro-Obama blog, and I am not even a registered Democrat. But I do think there's a lot of truth in what he said even if he phrased it badly. The predictable outrage seems to be more from people who were against Obama to begin with (such as yourself, Nikki), from Clinton (who famously alienated Black voters with her South Carolina campaign and her gender-baiting in New Hampshire), and John McCain (who famously derided evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance"). So Obama's "bitter" comment is just one more brick in a really stupid wall consisting of words politicians wish they could take back.

The point of this post is to show that Obama is at least talking about these raw issues and how they come into being, rather than saying everything is right with America. People may take offense at his choice of words, but if they will let this anger over the word "bitter" or "cling" make them vote for a politician who represents the same policies that will further disadvantage them, then that's their problem--not Obama's.

By the way, Obama is a LIBERAL DEMOCRAT. Liberal Democrats generally believe the government SHOULD play a greater role in our lives because sometimes that's all some people have. The government is seen as a protector to these people. Criticizing this particular political philosophy goes beyond the scope of this post, which is really more about his choice of words and perceived arrogance than his actual liberal ideology.

Also, it's not quite the same thing to equate President Bush's mangling of words with Obama's statements here. People know that when Bush stumbles over words, it might be funny, but in the grand scheme of things, it's no big deal. Criticisms of Bush are generally over other more relevant and more important matters on which you and I and apparently 7 out of 10 Americans fundamentally disagree. But we've talked about that before.

As for the readers of this blog, perhaps the people who comment the most are pro-Obama. I don't know. But it seems that at least they can take it when their candidate is criticized. I wrote favorably about McCain recently, but don't recall many GOP folks praising the piece. And the same held true when I wrote about how Clinton could stage her comeback. In blogging, you don't have the luxury of choosing the political leanings of your readers and commenters. You just have to deal with what you've got, and I'm glad to have the readers and commenters that I do.

Everyone is welcome here--so long as they can argue their points intelligently and honestly.

Thank you all for the comments.

Nikki said...

Ouch. I didn't mean to offend anyone and I was not offended. I was just stating my opinion and thought I was having a conversation like I have had before. I honestly meant nothing by the assumptive Obama comment. I reread my posts and I am not sure where I went wrong. I thought I had apologized sufficiently. Perhaps not.

Anthony Palmer said...

You don't have to apologize for anything, Nikki. Nobody did anything wrong. Keep the good comments coming. It's just a rallying cry to get a few Clinton and McCain supporters to break their silence and add their two cents as well. :)