Firestorm! Defining moment! Possible end of his presidential campaign! Elitist! These terms and more have been the object of a new controversy brewing around the Obama campaign since Friday of last week. It has to do with a recorded account of a private fundraiser held by Senator Barack Obama in San Francisco April 6. Senator Obama is reported to have claimed that small town America is composed of ‘bitter, frustrated people who cling to religion, guns and anti-immigrant attitudes’ to express their view of the state of America today due to job losses.
It did not take long for the Clinton and McCain campaigns to attack Obama and place the Illinois Senator on the defensive. They claim he is out of touch, condescending and patronizing. CNN, which reported the speech excerpt from the Huffington Post, conducted online surveys to measure the impact. Curiously, the issue did not make it to the mainstream media on Friday or to the Pennsylvania newspapers on Saturday. However, it did become the object of the Sunday talk shows and did force Senator Obama to apologize for some of the words he used to describe the mood of small town America. Yet, to Obama’s credit, he remains committed to his general diagnostic that people are frustrated and bitter because they feel Washington is out of touch. A mixture of a good offense and some regret can best summarize Obama’s management of this controversy.
Will the controversy die down? Probably not. And it will be one more test of Obama’s mettle as the future nominee of the Democratic Party. Many will likely conclude that his recent surge in Pennsylvania will be stopped because of his remarks, depriving him of an upset victory in Pennsylvania as a consequence. Winning in Pennsylvania has been a long shot all along. Should Obama be within single-digit range of Clinton come April 22, he can probably still claim a moral victory. But Hillary Clinton will steadfastly remain in the race. There is no doubt, however, that Obama will have to come to grips with a controversy of his own making. Otherwise, his candidacy will soon be a question mark to the remaining uncommitted super delegates.
That the Clintons–and this includes Bill–jumped all over Obama’s remarks is fair game. After all, she cannot afford to lose Pennsylvania and claim to legitimately pursue her quest for the nomination. Hillary’s recent problems dealing with her Bosnia story, the inaccurate healthcare anecdote, and the duplicity of her chief strategist and her husband on Free Trade with Columbia were starting to erode her once very comfortable lead. But the term ‘bitter’ may be a lot closer to the truth when it comes to gauging the mood of small town America. People in small town America have been directly affected by losses in Iraq, the lack of universal healthcare, and the outsourcing of jobs. To be told by Bill Clinton that these people are not bitter but that they are proud seems to show more of an out of touch mentality than Obama’s ill-chosen words.
John McCain will surely pile it on today, and it too is fair game. Yet, John McCain, who initially voted against the Bush tax cuts saying they were unconscionable in times of war, is now wanting to make these tax cuts permanent. With middle class income lagging in the past decade, how will Senator McCain explain his new position when America is registering its highest deficit in history and over 40 millions Americans have no health insurance? Democrats, including Mrs. Clinton, will surely remind McCain of this come election time. Again, who seems to be more in touch?
That said, Obama is to blame for his current predicament. And how he will be able to once again regain his momentum will be a test of his character and his political skill. Already, the online surveys on news shows seem to show some indulgence of the Obama remarks. The Clinton campaign must be careful because if they overplay this card, they will only display their own sense of bitterness. A year ago there really was no race. It was Hillary against the rest. You could feel the sense of entitlement in both Clintons until she finished third in Iowa! Since Iowa, Hillary’s campaign has shown some appealing traits, like her tenacity and her resilience. But at the same time, she has displayed a strong negative streak and the polarizing side of her public personality has surfaced quite dramatically in recent weeks. In the end, the term ‘bitter’ may indeed end up being the appropriate term. The only caveat is that it may apply more to Clinton and her campaign than to small town America.