Correct answer from Obama: “A lot of folks are not with me because I’m black — but I’m trying to make my case and bring as many around as I can.”
Maybe Barack Obama felt he couldn’t afford to give the correct answer.
He was asked at a fund-raiser in San Francisco about his campaign’s experiences in the run-up to next week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. One of the main problems, of course, is that he hasn’t generated as much support as he’d like among white working-class voters.
There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it’s pretty widely understood that a substantial number of those voters — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere — will not vote for a black candidate for president.
This toxic issue is at the core of the Clinton camp’s relentless effort to persuade superdelegates that Senator Obama “can’t win” the White House. It’s the only weapon left in the Clintons’ depleted armory.
Senator Obama has spent his campaign trying to dodge the race issue, which in America is like trying to dodge the wind. So when he fielded the question in San Francisco, he didn’t say: “A lot of folks are not with me because I’m black — but I’m trying to make my case and bring as many around as I can.”
Instead, he fell back on a tortured response that was demonstrably incorrect. Referring to the long-term economic distress of many working-class voters, Mr. Obama said: “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 antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
He danced all around the truth. Unless you’re Fred Astaire, if your dance steps get too intricate you’re bound to make a misstep. This was a big one.
But there is something perverse in the effort to portray Senator Obama — who has tried hard to promote a message of unity and healing — as some kind of divisive figure. He has spoken with great insight and empathy, most notably in his race speech in Philadelphia, about the anxiety and frustration of middle- and working-class Americans.
In his San Francisco comments, Senator Obama fouled up when he linked frustration and bitterness over economic hard times with America’s romance with guns and embrace of religion. But, please, let’s get a grip. What we ought to be worked up about is the racism that still prevents some people from giving a candidate a fair chance because of his skin color.
Are working people bitter? There’s no doubt that many are extremely bitter over the economic hand they’ve been dealt. Those who believed that America’s industrial heartland was secure and everlasting have been forced to adjust over the past several years to an extremely bitter reality. Jobs and pensions have vanished. The value of the family home is sinking. Health care is increasingly unaffordable. For many, the cost of college is out of reach.
But “bitter” has a connotation that is generally not helpful in a political campaign. Bitter suggests powerlessness and a smallness of spirit. Most people would prefer to be characterized as “angry” — a term that suggests empowerment — rather than “bitter,” with its undertone of defeat.
So this was not a good episode for Senator Obama, however you look at it.
If I were advising him, I would tell him to confront the matter head-on, meeting as often as possible with skeptical, and even hostile, working people in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Let the questions rip, and answer them honestly.
No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it’s certainly not racist to vote against him. But the senator can make it clear that it is wrong to dismiss a candidacy out of hand solely because of the race or ethnicity or gender of the candidate.
One of Mr. Obama’s strongest points early in this campaign was his capacity to make people feel good about their country again. If I were him, I’d try to re-ignite that flame.
During his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses, he told a tumultuously cheering crowd: “They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”
Mr. Obama needs to get back on that message of unity and hope, appealing to the better angels of the working classes, while at the same time fashioning an economic message more compelling than what we’ve heard to date.
The various groups, ethnic and otherwise, are not interested in being characterized. They’re interested in being led.