In his most eloquent speeches, Barack Obama has spoken of America as a "magical place" comprised of hard working people who share the same core values despite racial, geographic, and economic divisions.
Last week, at a private fundraiser for wealthy donors outside of San Francisco, Obama struck a much different tone when ruminating on his failure to make headway among working class voters. Suddenly, typical small town Americans morphed into bitter souls, clutching their Bibles in one hand, their guns in the other, and with binoculars dangling from their necks to detect invading Mexicans.
The instantly explosive remarks could represent a turning point in the presidential campaign. Obama's strength as a politician was rooted in his promise to shatter the red state/blue state deadlock that has characterized the last several presidential election cycles.
He has aimed to reach out to independents, religious voters, and even Republicans, who have been dubbed "Obamacans." Now it is more likely his candidacy will reignite the cultural tensions he hoped to diffuse.
"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 on April 6, in remarks that weren't known until the Huffington Post discovered them on Friday.
"So it's not surprising then that 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."
The use of the verb "cling to," which negatively connotes a desperate emotional attachment to something, was a particularly galling way of belittling people's commitment to the Second Amendment and the importance of religion in their lives.
In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that his fellow progressives "need to take faith seriously not simply to block the religious right but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal."
But last Sunday, in a moment of candor, he put religion in the same negative context as xenophobia and hatred of immigrants. Furthermore, his dismissal of "anti-trade sentiment" exposes the phoniness of his protectionist promises to voters in Ohio.
Obama later tried to spin his way out of it. He claimed he meant that "people don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody is going to help them" so they vote on issues like guns and gay marriage.
THOUGH OBAMA POINTS TO cultural issues as the reason why he is having problems attracting working class voters, it simply does not make sense that those issues would cause him problems in the primaries.
First, there is a smaller concentration of gun rights and values voters in Democratic primaries. Second, his opponent holds virtually the same positions on all of those issues.
Many Beltway pundits shrugged off the importance of Obama's comments by noting that he was simply reiterating author Thomas Frank's thesis that working class voters vote Republican, against their own economic interests, because of cultural issues.
This just reinforces why Obama has a problem with those voters in the first place. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and spent his adult life in either an academic or urban setting. His approach to understanding small town America is cerebral. It's natural that he would find it more difficult to connect with this part of the electorate.
Many of the discussions he likes to engage in, such as the current topic of controversy, are typical of late night bull sessions one would have at a university. It isn't surprising that in addition to black voters, his most solid constituencies are among young college students and well-educated adults.
The Illinois senator's comments feed into a growing narrative that includes his wife's remark that her husband's campaign represented the first time she had been proud of America and the Jeremiah "Goddamn America" Wright fiasco.
Obama has promised to be a transformational liberal leader, who has the potential to transcend partisan politics and cobble together a coalition not only to win an election, but also to advance a progressive agenda once elected.
The best bet Republicans have for beating Obama is to convince voters that beyond the lofty rhetoric and new packaging, he's just the same old liberal they've rejected for decades. Obama just made that job a whole lot easier.
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