Barack Obama's comments about 'bitter' working-class voters continue to be squeezed for every last drop of political juice by the Clinton and McCain campaigns. Here's what Obama actually said:
Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). [...]
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. 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 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. So it's not surprising then that 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.
As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, Obama's analysis here is similar to that advanced by Thomas Frank in What's the matter with Kansas? (published in the UK as What's the matter with America?). Like Frank's book, Obama's speech suggests thoughtful empathy, rather than elitist contempt, for the problems faced by working-class Americans. But, as Barack is now discovering, the nuanced critique of the political analyst doesn't translate well to the 24-hour news cycle. Someone in his campaign should have remembered that, in a saturation-coverage election, you can't say something about one group of voters to another group elsewhere in the country, without the first group finding out what you've been saying about them. To have said these things in San Francisco of all places, and in the week before a Pennsylvania primary whose outcome will depend on those working-class votes, was an unusual misjudgement for this usually surefooted campaign.
Those who wish Obama well have to hope that, as with his major speech on race last month, the voters will prefer honesty over the milking-it-for-all-its-worth duplicity of the Clinton campaign. In response to Obama's comments, Hillary has reinvented herself yet again, this time - improbably - as a devout, gun-toting, hard-drinking working-class gal. There are signs, though, that even some of Hillary's core demographic - white women - are growing tired of the way she has run her campaign.