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.

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?

Can we rehabilitate him? First up, guns and religion. The charge against Obama is that he thinks of gun owners and the religious as mindless slobs who have no legitimate basis for their views and come to them merely out of economic hardship. His salvation on this point may come in a 2004 conversation with Charlie Rose, in which he also talks about blue-collar workers who hunt and attend church. On the show, Obama gave little hint of condescension. He affirmed that people go to church and hunt for their own sake. Such activities, he said, became more central to their lives by lack of employment opportunity, but it wasn't bitter lack of employment that drove them to those pursuits. He goes on to say that Republicans, by appealing to people in their emotional comfort zones of church and the gun club, have made better inroads with these voters. Democrats, by appearing to condescend about the motives behind these activities, don't appear to credit the legitimate reasons people have for doing them, compounding the party's electoral problem.

This clip suggests that Obama isn't a thoroughgoing snob about guns and religion, which is the claim being made in the wake of his San Francisco remarks. In fact, he's making the anti-snob case. It's plausible then that Obama got caught shorthanding his more complex view about electoral behavior rather than let slip a hidden truth about his view of the way small-town people live their lives. This distinction, if you believe it, condemns him more as a bad pundit than as a potential president who will be incapable of forming policy for people who make less than $50,000 a year.

Now comes the harder task of trying to help Obama out of the ditch of the back half of his sentence, about small-town people who cling to "antipathy" that amounts to xenophobia and racism. These hardly fit into the category of good things to embrace, as Obama's spin would have us believe. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, though, what Obama seems to have been trying to do is catalog the many ways politicians can play on voters made vulnerable by their economic conditions. They can play on the voters' heartfelt passions (guns and god) or they can appeal to their darker side (xenophobia and racism). Viewed this way, Obama is potentially rescued from a conflation that mixes racism with religion and makes more plausible his explanation that he was trying to talk about favorable aspects of small-town life.

That's the best I can do to unpack what Obama was trying to say. My defense would probably get me laughed out of the bar in Altoona, Pa., which is the problem Obama has trying to explain himself. (In the end, Obama will probably do better trying to remind voters of Hillary's flaws than defending his own remarks.)

Ultimately, in trying to explain what Obama was thinking, I run out of string. He wasn't expressing a sweeping view of the human behavior of small-town people. He was making a tactical point about how politicians appeal to voters at election time, but that tactical point about electoral behavior still relies on an unflattering view of small-town voters. No matter what helping hand you extend him, Obama still claimed that voters have been hoodwinked on Election Day, and no one wants to be told that in the past they've been duped into voting for the wrong person.

Obama supporters should know just how offensive it is to hear this line of argument. They've been on the receiving end of it for months, as Hillary Clinton and her allies have described them as deluded cult members who are marching behind the inexperienced senator because he gives a pretty speech. Obama supporters don't like it when their well-thought-out reasons for following Obama are dismissed as emotional, irrational, and thoughtless. They should understand, then, why people who don't support Obama—or in the past haven't voted for Democrats—don't like being told that they've drunk some kind of crazy Kool-Aid.

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