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Barack Obama's "small town" critique: Is this a game changer?

April 11, 2008 |  9:47 pm

Much as Desi Arnaz often demanded of Lucille Ball on their famed sitcom, Barack Obama has someLucille Ball and Desi Arnez  'splainin to do.

Relative quiet on the political news front became anything but as word spread Friday of an item on the Huffington Post concerning comments Obama made at a private fundraiser Sunday in San Francisco.

Blogger Mayhill Fowler was there with her tape recorder and, after setting up the payoff to her item with her own observations about Pennsylvania, related this quote from Obama as he sought to give his Bay Area crowd some perspective about a different part of the country:

"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. 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."

Here's the entire post, which includes audio of Obama's mini-spiel. And that's the part that resonated -- and how.

Hillary Clinton campaign aides sought to stir up interest in it -- and then pounced when reports it started to seep into the mass media, clearly seeing the potential contretemps as ...

the Obama stumble they've been hoping for.

The candidate, appearing at a "town hall" event in Philadelphia, had this to say: “I saw in the media it’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter. Well, that’s not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive, who are rolling up their sleeves."

Etc. ...

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama recites the Pledge of Allegiance in Indiana before he came under fire for his remark about Americans living in small tow Tonight, after Obama, speaking in Indiana, took a crack at defusing the matter (more on that later), Clinton spokesman Phil Singer responded with a statement calling it "unfortunate" that he "didn’t say he was sorry for what he said."

More telling than the expected, and somewhat restrained, reaction from Camp Clinton was the outrage from other quarters -- making it a virtual certainty that this story won't fade over the weekend.

On CNN, the Lou Dobbs talk show devoted virtually its entire hour to what, with typical subtlety, it billed as Obama's "Attack on Small-Town America."

The segment included an online poll that asked, yes or no, whether participants believed Obama's "comments reveal his elitist attitude toward every hardworking American?"

(A guest host filled in for Dobbs, who no doubt was off somewhere kicking himself for the bad luck of not having the chance to huff-and-puff on the subject.)

Various arms of the Republican political apparatus also swung into action. Here's a sample:

* Steve Schmidt, a top advisor to presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain, declared that Obama's remarks showed "an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

* Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Robert Gleason Jr., in a statement issued by the state GOP,  was pronounced "appalled" by Obama's comments. Said Gleason: "I find Barack Obama’s comments incredibly insulting, and believe many others in the Keystone State will as well. In light of this most recent statement, I believe Americans are going to have even more questions about his values."

(Even more questions? No doubt a nod toward the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.)

* The National Republican Congressional Committee fulminated that Obama "talks a good game about uniting the country, but when he thinks no one is looking -– such as at fundraisers on the West Coast –- his personal biases against Small Town America are revealed."

* After Obama's Indiana appearance tonight, the McCain staff held forth again. Said spokesman Tucker Bounds: "Instead of apologizing to small town Americans for dismissing their values, Barack Obama arrogantly tried to spin his way out of his outrageous San Francisco remarks." In the three other sentences that wrapped up his statement, Bounds managed to work in the "elitist" characterization twice.

All this within just a few hours after the Huffington Post item percolated. Imagine what the barrage will be like as it takes root.

Obama, as mentioned, offered his initial response to this new furor while campaigning in Terre Haute. Here are the pertinent parts:

"I was in San Francisco talking to a group at a fundraiser and somebody asked how’re you going to get votes in Pennsylvania? What’s going on there?  We hear that it's hard for some working class people to get behind you’re campaign. I said, 'Well look, they’re frustrated and for good reason.  Because for the last 25 years they’ve seen jobs shipped overseas.  They’ve seen their economies collapse.  They have lost their jobs.  They have lost their pensions.  They have lost their healthcare.

"And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said 'We’re going to make your community better.  We’re going to make it right' and nothing ever happens.  And of course they’re bitter.  Of course they’re frustrated.  You would be too. In fact many of you are.  Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur.  The same thing has happened all across the country.  Nobody is looking out for you.  Nobody is thinking about you.  And so people end up -- they don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them. 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. So I made this statement -- so, here’s what's rich.  Sen. Clinton says ‘No, I don’t think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania.  You know, I think Barack’s being condescending.’  John McCain says, ‘Oh, how could he say that?  How could he say people are bitter? You know, he’s obviously out of touch with people.’

"Out of touch?  Out of touch?  I mean, John McCain -- it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch?  Sen. Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I’m out of touch?  No, I’m in touch.  I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania. I know what’s going on in Indiana. I know what’s going on in Illinois.  People are fed up. They’re angry and they’re frustrated and they’re bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States of America."

All well and good. But we're betting not nearly enough.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credits: Orange County Fair (Lucy and Desi); Associated Press (Obama)

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