What Barack Obama was trying to say.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 14 2008 6:47 PM

Big Snob or Little Snob?

Trying to figure out what Barack Obama was trying to say.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

There are so many problems with Barack Obama's comments about small-town America, it's hard to know where to begin. Lots of my colleagues have shouldered their pickaxes and chipped out smart deconstructions, with which I largely agree. The only open field left is trying to defend Obama's remarks. It is a hard trick to pull off. You have to be Houdini to get out of this quote describing the behavior of people who live in small towns:

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

[I]t'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.

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It's a triple whammy. Obama claims to speak for people, something folks don't like, whether they live in small towns or large ones. He touches on some of the most explosive issues in politics—religion, guns, race, and immigration—where voters tend to have deep-seated views. He then says something really tone-deaf, ascribing suspect reasoning to choices people have made about core parts of their daily lives.

Obama has not helped himself in his efforts at damage control. First, he said he was just telling the truth, but edited the truth he was telling. People are "bitter" because they've been let down by previous administrations, he said; his campaign seeks to take up their cause. This ignored the incendiary religion, guns, and xenophobia portions of his remarks.

Obama then argued that he was really complimenting small-town voters. At the CNN Compassion Forum Sunday night, he said, "you know, Scripture talks about clinging to what's good." This works only if you close your eyes to the rest of Obama's original sentence, since surely he wasn't saying it's a good thing to cling to xenophobia and racism. Which is to say it doesn't work at all. Obama also admitted that he didn't choose his words carefully when he spoke about small-town values in San Francisco. But this was more than a slip—it was an extended riff.

Since Obama's spin for himself isn't working so well, let's try to figure out if there were benign sentiments he may have been trying to express that just got mangled in translation. This isn't a trivial pursuit. Obama is offering voters his talent for empathy. But if he's going to bring the country together, he can't go pissing off huge swathes of it. He says the key to enacting the policies he thinks will help blue-collar whites is the rallying of the nation behind his candidacy. How can small-town regular folk rally around someone they don't trust?