Right-wing ABC radio talkshow host John Batchelor has filled my in box in these last 18 hours with e-mails dissecting and skewering what Obama meant when he said at a private April 6 fundraiser that small-town voters in economically distressed areas of Pennsylvania are "bitter." Batchelor and Laura Ingraham and Monica Crowley and Sean Hannity and Rush and O'Reilly are ready and rearing to go, quick to their guns to paint Obama as an elitist. (Read the excerpt from Nation columnist Eric Alterman's "Why We're Liberals" in the April 14th issue of The Nation to understand the cynicism and hypocrisy at the root of the conservative cabal's forty-year campaign.)
The Right has its reasons to play this cynical card. It is the Clinton campaign's rapid-fire, right-wing populist response to Obama's remarks that I find so troubling and cynical, and sure to hurt the party and the country in the general election.
Strip down what Obama was saying: He addressed the trouble his campaign of hope and change was having in "places where people feel most cynical about government." While he has tried to speak concretely about the conditions of peoples' lives, his campaign continues to have trouble making inroads among white working class voters, and "old economy" voters whose idea of change isn't hope but rather losing a job or a pension. Yet he is narrowing the margins.
In Muncie, Indiana Saturday morning, Obama was counterpunching, as he should be-- explaining and expanding on his remarks:
The problem is our politics doesn't let the American people get heard. People know that it's not easy solving some of these problems but they want to feel like at least someone is fighting for them.
It's interesting. Lately there has been a little typical sort of political flare up because I said something that everybody knows is true which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois who are bitter.
They are angry.
They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through.
So I said well you know when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community.
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And they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country or they get frustrated about how things are changing.
That's a natural response.
And now I didn't say it as well as I should have because you know the truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation those are important. That's what sustains us
But what is absolutely true is that people don't feel like they are being listened to. And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives. What we need is a government that is actually paying attention. A government that is fighting for working people day in and day out making sure that we are trying to allow them to live out the American dream. And that's what this campaign is about.
I can't think of much truer in our politics today than what Obama is saying about how "people don't feel they are being listened to...What we need is a government that is actually paying attention... fighting for working people day in and day out ..."
At a time when 81% of the country thinks we're heading in the wrong direction (aren't these people bitter?) , isn't it pretty clear that our economy has not performed well for most people for at least a generation, and is now heading into what everyone sentient would agree are likely to be some very tough times. Recovery from this recession is also likely to be even slower than the essentially jobless recovery from the last. The traditional means of jump-starting the economy -- dropping interest rates, or boosting consumer spending -- have been substantially exhausted, and their pell-mell unregulated pursuit is a large part of what got us into our current mess.
The political discontent is obvious--and Obama is trying to speak to that. Americans are fed up with government's failure to do anything much for them, or that they're proud of being part of. " Here's how it is," he said in his April 6 remarks. " In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania people have been beaten down for 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." Here's where the Right's generation-long attack on government has done real damage to citizen confidence in government. We see it all around us everyday. But surely the other critical source of citizen doubt is that government has in fact done little recently to measurably improve their lives and give them a sense of national purpose. After all, Bill Clinton, long considered the master politician of his age, was basically in the business of lowering expectations of government even faster than they were disappointed. Obama is trying to amp up expectations which the Right and Clintonism have tamped down.
The right wing is clearly desperate; ready to seize on anything to change the subject and hide how out of touch they are with an America in financial pain. But how cynical of the Clinton campaign to claim Obama was condescending to the people of Pennsylvania.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2008 The Nation