Obama and the white working class

The candidate's Pennsylvania remarks, and his passionate defense of them, are more convincing than the debate about them would have you believe.

Published April 12, 2008 4:43AM (EDT)

I've been a cheerleader for a fight-to-the-finish Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest, but sometimes even I get tired of the frenzy.

I was almost worn down by the debate over Obama's probably unfortunate comments about Pennsylvania voters at a San Francisco fundraiser last weekend. Now, I'm inclined to be critical of Obama on this one, since he spent his weekend in the company of the most privileged folks in my most privileged city (and it's true, I wasn't invited!). I personally, when I do get included in such fabulous events, try to remind as many folks as possible of my working-class Irish Catholic roots. That's just me.

Obama, unfortunately, made a comment his working-class critics and/or political enemies could, did and will for a while use against him. As you probably know, he said the troubles of the working class allowed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations (fact-check: unfair cheap-shot equation of the two presidencies) left some Pennsylvanians behind: “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.”

Hillary Clinton and John McCain both struck back at Obama's seeming snobbiness about the Pennsylvania working class, and the Obama campaign's early retort was uncharacteristically stupid: It was a transcript of a CNN discussion where the sometimes great but derangedly anti-Clinton Jack Cafferty, and the brilliant but occasionally dense Jeffrey Toobin, came to Obama's defense. I wasn't persuaded: Barack Obama does have an affluent, educated, Ivy League sense of self-righteousness and entitlement that my Irish Catholic working-class side occasionally chafes at. So does Michelle Obama. So does Jeffrey Toobin. So do some of our Obama supporting readers. So sue me.

And I was prepared to try to explain the mounting irritation about Obama's remarks. But ... then I saw Obama's reply to his political critics. And it was awesome. Here's what he said:

"When I go around and I talk to people there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness. And what’s worse is when people are expressing their anger then politicians try to say what are you angry about? This just happened -- I want to make a point here today.

"I was in San Francisco talking to a group at a fundraiser and somebody asked how’re you going to get votes in Pennsylvania? What’s going on there? We hear that it's hard for some working class people to get behind your campaign. I said, 'Well look, they’re frustrated and for good reason. Because for the last 25 years they’ve seen jobs shipped overseas. They’ve seen their economies collapse. They have lost their jobs. They have lost their pensions. They have lost their healthcare.

“And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we’re going to make your community better. We’re going to make it right and nothing ever happens. And of course they’re bitter. Of course they’re frustrated. You would be too. In fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur. The same thing has happened all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you. And so people end up -- they don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington. So I made this statement -- so, here’s what rich. Senator Clinton says ‘No, I don’t think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know, I think Barack’s being condescending.’ John McCain says, ‘Oh, how could he say that? How could he say people are bitter? You know, he’s obviously out of touch with people.’

“Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain -- it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch? Senator Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I’m out of touch? No, I’m in touch. I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania. I know what’s going on in Indiana. I know what’s going on in Illinois. People are fed-up. They’re angry and they’re frustrated and they’re bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States of America.”

Late Friday, the Clinton campaign actually sent out text of his entire statement last weekend, in context, and it's standard lefty political analysis of working-class biases, but with some compassion:

"I think it's fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre ... they're misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to white working-class don't wanna work -- don't wanna vote for the black guy. That's ... there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today -- kind of implies that it's sort of a race thing.

"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. They feel so betrayed by government that 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, then that adds another layer of skepticism.

"But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What is the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is so we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- to close tax loopholes, uh you know uh roll back the tax cuts for the top 1%, Obama's gonna give tax breaks to uh middle-class folks and we're gonna provide healthcare for every American.

"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. And it'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.

"Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you'll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I'd be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing."

I actually thought the full transcript was much less disturbing than the original snippet. Others may disagree. We'll see how it continues to unfold. I do hope Obama learns from the misunderstanding, and doesn't ever again seem to disrespect the disadvantaged working class while he's flattering the overadvantaged class that attends his fundraisers, or his Harvard and Columbia class reunions. (In my experience, the black and white overclass has far more in common with one another than they'll ever publicly acknowledge.)

But I wish everyone who's angry about the flap over Obama's remarks, on both sides, would debate what he actually said. It's what the Democrats are going to face in November, no matter who's nominated. As I've said before, Obama is more ready for the rough and tumble of these tough questions than his campaign or some of his supporters.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections