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April 11, 2008


Why don't you assume that Obama meant just exactly what he said? Mickey Kaus describes Obama's statement as a Category II Kinsley Gaffe, which he defines as "when a politican says what he or she actually thinks (whether or not it's the truth)."

Obama's statement is not only impolitic, it's condescending and arrogant and contemptuous. And in a single sentence, it sums up the intellectual and academic Democratic view of the unwashed masses they regard as their natural constituency. Hillary and McCain were right to pounce on it, and it will be highly entertaining to watch Obama try to dance away from his statement in the coming days.

Obama hit a lot of hot buttons in a single crisp sentence. One is the implicit presumption that those who oppose illegal immigration are anti-immigrant.

Another is the chutzpah of a Democrat accusing people of being anti-trade. Nancy Pelosi and the House Dems just scuttled the trade agreement with Colombia. AFAIK Obama didn't criticize their action.

Thanks to Brendan for his update. Let me build on Kaus's comment about Obama's race speech by noting another problem with Obama's San Francisco statement.

Obama has premised his campaign on a new kind of politics, presumably one that builds bridges across divisions. Yet neither Obama's voting record nor his statements suggest any willingness to compromise or serious respect for differing views. Instead, he contorts others' differing views to become part of his own chosen narrative and as confirmation of his policy prescriptions.

It's the political equivalent of a parent dismissing a child's objection to something by telling the kid he's just being cranky. Senator Obama will make a far better President if he accepts the possibility that when voters disagree with his positions on immigration or affirmative action or gun control or the tastiness of Brussels sprouts, they aren't just being cranky.

people see condescension where they want to see it. i'd posit that deeming the pennsylvania populous to which which obama was referring as being condescended to as condescending. i think the key problem with this and the wright affair is that people build these assumptions based more on sound bites than the whole cloth of what was said. this is far more destructive to understanding than any liberal elitism. i'll close with my two cents: this sounds condescending in a certain context, but the entire statement seemed to speak more to people's bitterness at political bait-and-switch, deciding to stop trying to help their overall situation and instead become issue voters on things they know politicians will listen on.

Obama's initial remarks are confusing and poorly phrased (which is, consequently, why I think this will be a tough tool to wield against him -- there's no good and easy-to-understand quote in there to hit him with). That said, the larger context he gave last night at an event in Indiana kind of changed the way I initially read what he was saying:

Obama's">http://talkingpointsmemo.com/">Obama's Response

He's basically making a Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas-eqsque argument, though one in which he doesn't blame those working class people for voting against their economic interests, but rather rationalizes it as being a reasonable decision after three decades of Washington inaction to their economic concerns.

It's not that he's saying these cultural beliefs arise directly from economic stagnation, but more so that people vote along those cultural lines disproportionately, and politicians draw upon these divisions cynically, such that they come to dominate political discourse over other, more pressing economic matters.

Kaus is wrong; Obama doesn't fault people for being opposed to busing or Affirmative Action, and he doesn't argue they only hold those beliefs because of their economic situation; the argument is that Washington inaction on economic collapse, and the way in which politicians have played off those (existing, real and justifiable) resentments, have caused those social concerns to take up disproportionate space in political discourse (have "distracted attention"), when the real culprit is something else entirely (bad corporate culture, questionable accounting practices, etc. etc.)

Now we can argue back and forth about the merits of that argument (I think it has a lot of flaws, and a bit of revisionist history of the past 30 years), but just because they are intellectualized and complex doesn't mean they're condescending; the "consciousness" he's describing isn't a "false consciousness", it is very real and entirely justifiable, though one that, because of cynical politicians and Washington inaction, ultimately distracts from more pressing concerns.

I do find it particularly amusing that McCain can comment given some of the statements he's made regarding the housing crisis.

Honestly I'm tired of the picking apart of these statements based on some belief that the politicians should first make people feel good, truth be damned- read HRC's comments in rebuttal - what do they mean asides from sounding good as a sound-bite?

I agree that middle america is bitter - but so is urban america and anyone who isn't in the top 20% of wage earners. And I wish Washington would be held responsible about it - but we generally let them off the hook.

from swimming freestyle:

"This video is exactly how Obama should have raised the issue: In the environment these voters live and with an appropriate anger. Rural working class voters have gotten the shaft. They have every right to be frustrated and even bitter about what's happened to them.

Obama now finds himself having to address the issue defensively, Unfortunately, the issue will now likely be obscured by the hysterical anti-Obama rants by the Clintons and McCains. Obama gave them that gift when he spoke in San Francisco last weekend."


Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mickey Kaus, the political media (and now Rob) are certainly quick to take offense. What I haven't seen is any evidence that the voters in Pennsylvania, or the people at the speech were up in arms over his words. Like Joe Klein - who worries that the people in the heartland will be upset if Obama doesn't wear a flag pin - it's this contrived concern for the feelings of the people in the heartland that is insulting.

Obama's comment is not condescending or elitist and can hardly be called a gaffe. He has been saying similar things to people across the country for months now.
Kaus's falls apart, because Obama didn't accidentally says what he really thinks - he said it purposefully. His rural supporters are intelligent enough to follow his meaning. People do become bitter when their jobs go overseas and when the government bails out the banks while those banks foreclose on their homes.

You can't complain that candidates are always speaking in vapid, treacly, platitudes, when you've got a hair trigger reaction to anything they say on the stump. That's the difference between Hillary and Barack - he is trusted and she is not because he does speak honestly about controversial subjects while she sticks to the politically acceptable.

Mickey Kaus (and Rob) are full of it. Obama's not saying that people can't have legitimate oppositon to immigration, gun control, affirmative action, etc. He's saying that these issues have additional salience because of economic anxiety.

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