Bitter Politics: Advantage Obama?

Barack Obama's "bitter" remarks have gotten an extraordinary amount of coverage in the media over the past few days (such as here, here, and here). Journalists, pundits, and elected officials of all political persuasions have pounced on these remarks and speculated on how adversely they will impact his campaign.

Hillary Clinton, for example, has turned the words "bitter" and "cling" into potential political gold by creating a campaign ad slamming Obama as offensive and elitist. She also slammed him at the recent CNN Compassion Forum.

John McCain, who stayed far away from the Jeremiah Wright controversy, had no problems jumping in the fray by calling Obama's remarks elitist. Perhaps because class arguments are politically safer than discussing race, "straight talk" is easier for McCain to engage in this time around. Regardless, this episode has surely been good for his fundraising.

Regarding the media itself, there are some who are focusing strictly on the word "bitter" as an insult. Others took offense over the use of the phrases "cling to guns" and "cling to religion" because they seemingly demean their rural voters' cultural identities (churchgoing sportsmen). And more are discussing how Obama is coming off as an elitist in the mold of failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

However, could Obama actually wind up as the beneficiary of the aftermath of his awkward remarks?

Comparatively little is being said about the main point of his remarks, which is that these rural voters often vote against their economic self interests because the cynicism and frustration brought about by the loss of jobs in their communities and the lack of affordable healthcare (which affect more than just rural voters) make them more apt to respond to social wedge issues that capitalize on their frustrations, again at the expense of their economic well-being. This was well argued by Obama supporter Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who also appeared in this latest Obama campaign ad.

And more importantly, the more John McCain and Hillary Clinton try to score political points off of this story, the more it makes both of them look like political opportunists who are thus offering more of the same. This plays right into Obama's message of presenting something new. And the fact that Obama did indeed make a mistake could actually make him appear more humble or more accessible because it shows voters that he too is capable of making a mistake. After all, it is Obama who has traditionally been seen as the second coming of JFK or the political Messiah who could do no wrong.

Ironically, McCain may have inadvertently helped Obama by reminding voters that he (McCain) "will screw up sometimes and frankly so will you (the media)" but that he has "trust in the American people to get it right in the end." One of the first rules of politics is that when your opponent is digging himself a hole, don't hand him a shovel. McCain may have done just that, even if unintentionally.

The ongoing frenzy also advantages Obama because open-minded voters (e.g., undecided voters or those who had not written him off from the getgo) who are paying attention realize the point of what he was trying to say and/or accept his apology and simply want to move on. Gotcha politics reeks of talk and phony outrage, but no meaningful dialogue or solutions. Time politicians spend feigning outrage is time they are not spending presenting their own case to voters.

Could voters reward Obama as a way of punishing the media, the punditry, Hillary Clinton, and his Republican detractors for the way they blew this incident out of proportion? Should this happen, it could be attributable more to a repudiation of politics as usual rather than an actual endorsement of Obama himself. (Consider the uneasy reaction the audience gave when Clinton tried to address this issue recently.) It appears that based on a collection of polls, Obama is actually coming out of this controversy without too much damage. So it would seem that there might indeed be a disconnect between the chattering classes and the actual voters.

Regarding politics as usual, consider this:

1. Hillary Clinton found it necessary to talk about how her father taught her how to shoot when she was a little girl. But when asked when she last fired a gun, she said it was not relevant. That reeked of political opportunism because Clinton is not known for being a fierce defender of the Second Amendment. In the end, that made Clinton look like an empress who had no clothes. In response, Obama deftly compared Clinton to Annie Oakley and jokingly said that Clinton should "know better" because she's not "in the duck blind" every weekend.

2. Barack Obama is a Washington newcomer who has a net worth that is far lower than the other presidential candidates, including those who dropped out of the race. Per her newly released tax returns, Hillary Clinton made well over $100 million in the past eight years.

3. Republicans sound a bit hypocritical accusing Obama of being an elitist because they are the ones who commonly criticize Democrats for engaging in "class warfare." Barack Obama did not grow up as a privileged child with well-to-do parents. He was raised by his sick mother and his grandparents--hardly typical of children born into wealthy families who lived in gated communities located near elite private schools. And how did Obama go from being the inexperienced candidate who wasn't ready for the big leagues to being Mr. Elitist anyway?

This in no way diminishes the potential negative effects of these remarks in the general election. And Hillary Clinton may be hoping that uncommitted superdelegates give her a second look. But given how she may have overplayed her hand and how the punditry and the media are really missing the bus on this issue, Obama may actually come out of this controversy on top.

6 comment(s):

Brett said...

I think we need to, before simply analyzing Obama's comment, determine whether it is true or not. He basically re-stated the "What's the Matter With Kansas?" argument, but that is not necessarily true. If you have some free time, look up "What's the Matter With What's the Matter With Kansas?"; it sheds some skeptical light on the hypothesis.

In addition, if you think Hillary Clinton sounded politically opportunistic on hunting, that Compassion Forum was a riot as well. She gave a long spiel about how inspirational her faith was, but has trouble naming a single example? I can understand if some of this is stuff she would rather not expose to the public eye, but surely, if she is as spiritual as she claims to be, she has one experience she could share. Same goes for the Bible Story - just say Daniel-in-Lion's-Den if you don't know. :D

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

An intriguing piece, Sir.

I was actually quite surprised Obama's poll numbers have endured this. I hope that he breaths a sigh of relief because I think McCain, especially, is going to pound this home over the next few weeks.

I wonder what Rush Limbaugh has to say about this?

Anthony Palmer said...


Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, et al are going to pound this point home relentlessly in the general election. It will be the classic "Republican who understands average people vs. the liberal Democrat who hates America" argument that we've become accustomed to over the past few years.

Obama said on Hardball a few weeks ago that if he finishes all the primaries with more pledged delegates and more popular votes, he would have "earned" the nomination. That's a powerful word. So Clinton's chances of winning the nomination on the backs of the superdelegates diminish.

So what I'm saying is that Obama can win the nomination despite this controversy. But Republicans, who were never going to vote for him, will use his rhetoric as a wedge issue or a political weapon. It has been quite effective in the past, but I doubt it will be as potent this time around because the nation is really, really pessimistic based on the polls I've read and may decide that the demon they don't know is better than the demon they do know.



This is yet another reason why religion and politics don't mix. Obama stepped into it when he said "cling to religion" and Clinton stepped into it when she tried to portray herself as a frequent churchgoer only to say it's not relevant the last time she went to church. And remember, McCain called Falwell and Dobson "agents of intolerance," which offended a lot of churchgoers as well. I would much rather discuss the economy or Iraq, but until journalists and politicians start exercising a bit more discipline, it looks like we'll still be dissecting who's offended by this for the next few days.

Thanks for the comments.

Schenck said...

Anthony, why does the mainstream media have such a large disconnect with the average voter? Class disconnect? Corporate agenda? Do they just think we're stupid cuz we're not on TV?

Anthony Palmer said...


One thing to remember is that all media entities except for PBS are for-profit corporations. So they do what they think will generate ratings and sell advertising space.

Also, people shouldn't really take their anger out TOO much on the journalists because they have editors and producers and managers who are telling them what to cover. Having said that, I do believe a bit more journalistic integrity is sorely needed right now because this current state of pack journalism is pretty sorry.

Freadom said...

I guess we will see by the primary results today how these remarks will effect his battle with Hillary.