Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Northwesterner's View of Obama's "Bitter" Remark

Last week Barack Obama said Pennsylvania's small town voters are bitter about losing jobs and to explain their frustrations, they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Of course, those comments were abundant grist for the mills of the other presidential hopefuls, and pundits. But it's been nearly a week since his comments, and STILL it's a hot topic of discussion in the media. Is it the case outside newsrooms? Maybe - but none of my friends and acquaintances - usually not at all shy about voicing their views - have uttered a word about it to me. They had a much stronger response after Obama delivered his speech on race.

Among those offended by Obama was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She's generally had positive things to say about the Illinois Senator, in contrast to Hillary Clinton. But his "bitter" remarks turned her off.

"What turns off voters," she wrote, "is the detached egghead quality that they tend to equate with a wimpiness, wordiness and a lack of action — the same quality that got the professorial and superior Adlai Stevenson mocked by critics as Adelaide. The new attack line for Obama rivals is that he’s gone from J.F.K. to Dukakis. (Just as Dukakis chatted about Belgian endive, Obama chatted about Whole Foods arugula in Iowa.) Obama did not grow up in cosseted circumstances. [But] his exclusive Hawaiian prep school and years in the Ivy League made him a charter member of the elite, along with the academic experts he loves to have in the room."

(Dowd's piece is titled Eggheads and Cheeseballs.)

Commentators say Obama's comments were elitist, insulting, and out of touch....yet that has not translated into a significant drop in his poll numbers. Why the discrepancy in response?

Another Times writer tackles that issue.

Timothy Egan is originally from Spokane, and shares his view in his blog post, Lost Town Blues. Many of the readers' comments come from Washington State and northern Idaho.

Here's the blog entry, plus excerpts from some comments.

Lost Town Blues

In the town where I grew up, men had new trucks in their driveways, and three weeks of vacation for chasing deer in the fall and fish in the summer. They drank beer at a morning happy-hour after the graveyard shift ended, and voted for Democrats because they cared about the little guy, or so it was said.

In less than a generation’s time, the life jobs at the aluminum factory disappeared and the men lost their health benefits, their pensions, their self-confidence. You could say, without starting a fight, that some of them turned to God or guns for comfort — or at least for diversion. And then there were those who turned to alcohol.
It’s an old story, the grinding of winners into losers, a sort of geographic lottery. My town was Spokane, Wash., which has rebounded somewhat from the collapse of Kaiser Aluminum. But it could be McKeesport, Pa., or Utica, N.Y., or any of the 900 counties across the country that have lost jobs or population for decades.

People who live in small towns that have been passed over don’t need to be told that they’re bitter, or heroic. They’re stuck, is what they are. The honest ones say they would follow their kids out of town, if only they had the means. A few years ago, a University of Nebraska survey of 3,087 people in rural counties asked people how they felt about their lives. Only 11 percent of them said they were satisfied with where they lived. Optimism, as much a part of the landscape as winter wheat, was disappearing.

This sentiment, real but wrapped up in pride over place, may be in part why the polls show little change in Barack Obama’s standing since his comments about the bitterness of small towns and the working class. The pundits and voters are having two different conversations, not for the first time.

In that sense, the arc of this controversy is typical of how these things go: struggling towns are props, not issues.

One side rushes to drape themselves in flags, guns and the kind of Norman Rockwell hagiography that is far removed from the 2008 reality of meth labs and foreclosure frontiers. The other side says religion is for fools, and if only they had a new Starbucks in town, some of those Bible-banging gun nuts could learn to love Sundays with Norah Jones and a Scrabble game.

The low point in this discussion was Hillary Clinton talking about how she learned to shoot — “behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton.” Yes, and after that it was Wellesley, Yale, the White House and the $109 million fortune she made with her husband trading in their name and influence. She’s got elite cred with the best of them.

Obama can counter with the endorsement this week from Bruce Springsteen. Nobody in American literature or politics has done a better job than the Boss of describing (as in “My Hometown”) the heartbreak of a foreman who says, “these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back.”

But for a presidential campaign, we should forget rock lyrics, guns and God, and who can throw back a boiler-maker like a real man. The only question should be how — or whether — rust belt and rural towns can join the tomorrow economies.

For that matter, we should retire the test over which presidential candidate voters would most like to have a beer with. [YES, PLEASE!!!!! - Gillian] George W. Bush, when he was drinking, was probably a fun guy in a bar — all those frat boy tricks, flatulence jokes and arcane stats on long-retired major leaguers.

But he’s run the country into the ground, even if the only measurement is how blue collar workers fared under his watch. And he is the only leader who has actually embraced the elite label. At a fundraising dinner during his first term with the “haves and the have-mores,” as he referred to them, Bush said: “Some people call you the elite — I call you my base.” Now, he was joking, but there’s an element of truth there. And for the record, median hourly wages in Pennsylvania are down 16 cents from five years ago, adjusting for inflation.

So, solutions? On John McCain’s Web site, he talks as much about reviving small town America as he does about Lindsay Lohan’s love life — zilch. Clinton and Obama each have detailed, multi-point proposals. They’re heavy on new energy solutions — solar, wind, converting crops to fuel, with faded factory towns doing the work. The problem, as we’ve seen with the huge rise in commodity crop prices, is that when food and fuel compete for the same source, family budgets strain. Hillary is out with a new ad in Indiana, promising to keep defense jobs in the state — pork as public policy, another sleight-of-hand trick for small town America.

Is it too much to ask one of these candidates for an honest but painful statement suggesting that perhaps a lot of these towns may never come back? Or that the way to economic revival is to lose the pipe dream that Google is going to relocate to an old steel town because they have a tax-free enterprise zone and some cool mountain-bike trails?

“By the time November rolls around,” said Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Hillary’s top surrogate in the state, Obama’s comment “will be long forgotten.”

So will small town America. Again.


From the readers' comments:

"People tend to focus on Barack’s comment about people clinging to guns and religion but ignore the preceding statement about decades of unfulfilled promises from politicians from both parties. When taken out of context, his statement sounds petty and mean. The complete statement hints at an “inconvenient truth” of another kind, that none of the political elite wish to acknowledge."

"I largely agree with Mr. Egan’s and Mr. Obama’s sentiments on small-town America. Although there is plenty of pride in cities and towns alike, it’s hard to miss the lack of interesting opportunities in small towns. For my fellow Washingtonians just consider the struggles people have had to endure in Forks, where significantly reduced logging has dramatically cut incomes. Or, Omak or Wilson Creek or Soap Lake, a place that’s [sic] best bet is tourism and the world’s largest lava lamp. All these towns have their charm but in global economy everyone’s best bet are the large metro areas, like Seattle."

"I worked for Kaiser in Spokane and also the steel industry in the 60’s to 80’s. I share your feelings about the “Lost Town Blues”. It’s painful to see all of the people hurt by the greed and shortsightedness of those like George W Bush that have run this country into the ground. My family rebounded from our difficulties and because of this I still have optimism that we - this country - can dig ourselves out of this big hole that we are in. What we need is an uplift by new leaders such as Barack Obama to get people working again in areas that will address our infrastructure needs, global warming, energy independence and others."

"I too was flummoxed by the reaction to Obama’s statement of the obvious. Why the bruhaha? I lived in a small town (Port Angeles) where the jobs in timber and fishing were gone and never coming back. I worked in legal aid and saw the ravaged lives of former loggers from Forks. (Hopefully the vampire industry generated by the Eclipse series will bring some tourism dollars to this suffering town…) Unfettered gun rights, anti-gay sentiment and seething hatred of environmentalists ran rampant. On a more positive note, religious communities took the place of the union hall and we took care of each other. We knew who the people in need were among us and we looked after them. It’s a different world."

"Some portray his words as being worse than the loss of the jobs — or that they need Hillary to come protect them from elitist comments. Please. What are yoins thinkin’? But our otherwise eloquent wordsmith Senator Obama needs a better word choice describing people’s religion, to be sure."

Here's a link to Timothy's Egan's blog entry, where you can also read all the comments.

Meantime, here's just one of many analyses of Obama's comment.