Will Obama Pay for 'Bitter' Flap?

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Jason Cohn / Reuters

Barack Obama addresses members of the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 14, 2008.

After the last few days he has endured over his controversial comments about "bitter" small-town America, Barack Obama can only hope that the Pope's arrival in Washington on Tuesday steals some of the spotlight. But given the hits he took from both the Clinton and McCain campaigns over his questionable choice of words, that may be too much of a miracle to ask for.

The entire weekend campaign news cycle was dominated by the fallout from a grainy and sometimes inaudible tape leaked to the website the Huffington Post, on which Obama can be heard lamenting to a closed San Francisco fundraiser the plight of rural Americans. "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," Obama said. "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."

To many observers, the timing couldn't have been worse, with the remarks seeming to insult the very crowd Obama has been courting in Pennsylvania ahead of its key primary next Tuesday. Polls have shown that in nearly every state save for Wisconsin Clinton has won the white working-class vote, moderate swing voters sometimes called Reagan Democrats; her advantage in that demographic helped Clinton win Ohio by 10.5 percentage points. "Obama used the word 'bitter' when he should have said 'frustrated,'" said Donna Brazile, an undecided Super Delegate who ran Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. "Clearly Obama's comments were 'unartful,' but not inaccurate. Polls show most voters are dissatisfied with the current direction of the country. And politicians have always played on their fears—and used issues like crime, welfare, gay rights and abortion—to draw distinctions without addressing the deep issues that voters care about."

Up until the "bitter" controversy, Obama had been gaining in the polls in Pennsylvania. He started March down more than 20 points but in recent days had whittled down Clinton's lead to just 7.3%, according to an average of Pennsylvania polls by the non-partisan website Real Clear Politics. It remains to be seen whether the reaction to the statements will actually affect the polls or simply serve as fodder for the punditocracy. But the comments could potentially help Clinton not only in Pennsylvania, but also with winning over undecided superdelegates who might otherwise be reluctant to go against the popular will of the voters. "These comments, and the larger issue of the Obama campaign's inability to connect with these working-class voters, is not a little thing. It's a big thing. And it's a big thing that is likely to end up making a big difference in November," Clinton's new chief strategist Geoff Garin said in an interview with the blog Talking Points Memo.

Clinton herself, along with G.O.P. presumptive nominee John McCain, were quick to latch on to Obama's comments as "elitist", "condescending" and "out of touch." Clinton has mentioned the gaffe at every event she's had all weekend, and her surrogates have picked up the drumbeat across the country. "As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves," Clinton said Friday. "Pennsylvanians don't need a President who looks down on them, they need a President who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."

Obama tried his best to repair the damage quickly. "I didn't say it as well as I could have," Obama told a crowd in Muncie, Indiana, Saturday. Later that same day he told a North Carolina newspaper: "Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that." At the same time, Obama refused to repudiate his words, seeking instead to clarify them. "People end up — they don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody's going to help them," Obama said. "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."

"I thought his response in Indiana, in which he reemphasized the point he was making rather than apologize or "clarify" it, was sensible and refreshing," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Though the first wave of criticism focused on Obama's use of the word "bitter," over the weekend critics concentrated more on Obama's use of the word "cling" and the negative connotation it gave to people's attachments to guns and God. "I think you're on dangerous ground when you morph that into suggesting that people's cultural values, whether its religion or hunting and fishing or concerns about trade, are premised solely upon those of kind of anxieties and don't have a legitimate foundation independent of them," Indiana Senator Evan Bayh told reporters while campaigning for Clinton in Indiana, which also holds its primary on May 6.

Last month Obama came under fire for comments made by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright from the pulpit over the years, including calling on his parish to "God damn America," and labeling the country the "U.S. of KKK A." Obama responded with an eloquent speech on race and the furor died down. This time, though, giving an intellectual speech is not going to easily solve the problem. Either way, Obama is going to have to find a way to speak to working-class white voters, if not before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, than certainly in the general election if he's the nominee.

"Mistakes become 'gaffes' when they play to an underlying stereotype," said Michael Munger, a polticial science professor at Duke University in North Carolina, which is scheduled to hold its primary May 6. "If Bill Clinton had said this thing about some white people being bitter and using guns, it would have been fine, since he grew up a poor white guy. But the Obama stereotype is a wealthy Ivy League elitist. He's a little too well-spoken; his suits are a little too expensive. From him, the comment comes off as condescending."

But if Clinton, and McCain for that matter, are going to use these comments to cast Obama as an arrogant elitist, they better be prepared to deal with the blowback. As Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant and Obama supporter, put it in an email exchange with TIME, "Hillary Clinton calls Barack Obama elitist? Really? Hillary Clinton was a corporate lawyer who sat on the Wal-Mart board before becoming First Lady and is now worth over $100 million. Barack Obama is the child of a single mother raised in part by his grandparents who went to school on a scholarship and was a community organizer making $12,000 a year before becoming a law professor, lawyer and state senator. Five years ago he was still paying off student loans. It's a bogus charge."