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.

[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.

Advertisement

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?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.