During a speech to donors in California, Senator Obama offered the following observation:
Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. . . . You go into 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 going to 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.
This observation has been pounced upon by Senators Clinton and McCain and their surrogates as demonstrating condescension and a lack of understanding of the needs of the deserving poor.
It is easy, politically expedient and therefore to be expected for candidates who are not themselves among the deserving poor to say such things.
Senator Obama left himself open to this criticism, as he has to similar criticism in the past. This is not a consequence of foot in mouth disease, as suffered by Senator and Former President Clinton. It is a consequence of something very different and, I submit, very encouraging.
If one reads the entire comment, what Senator Obama said actually seems to be both perceptive and valid. The rust belt has been rusting for years, and few effective remedies have been found or implemented, by Republicans or Democrats. The resultant demoralization is obvious, and sad but inevitable. In these circumstances, people do tend to assuage their misery by focusing on simplistic non-solutions. Some of the things they focus on can be good or at least help to distract them from their difficulties.
Senator Obama did not, I believe, intend to suggest that all of these things are perverse, although some of them obviously are. Abject poverty, in a context of hopelessness for the future, produces all manner of evil and always has. It can cause riots, self destructive activity and crime. This very normal human behavior has little if anything to do with race, geographic location or anything beyond a feeling of abject helplessness. Pandering to these results does not alleviate the problems; neither does ignoring them.
I do not feel that Senator Obama's words were condescending; quite the contrary. In contrast, to assume, as many politicians do, that the poor folks in the rust belt and elsewhere are so ignorant and befuddled as to be unable or unwilling at least to look at their problems and think about what he said is, to me, the ultimate condescension. To encourage them not to do so, by telling them that they have been grossly offended is even worse than condescension.
By leaving himself open to these criticisms, Senator Obama is not behaving as we have come to expect politicians to behave. We expect politicians to expound simplistic ideas through sound bites, in time for the evening news on television. “I will feed the poor, care for the sick, cure AIDS, lower fuel prices, educate the children and, you know, bring prosperity to the underprivileged.” Well, maybe not that much in a single sound bite; it's a tad too long. We also expect them to “vet” their comments through focus groups, and to be very, very careful lest they actually say something. Almost any statement with real substance is very likely to offend someone; we are very easily offended these days.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Senator Obama's campaign is that he says things like he just said in California and during his recent race speech. He is smart enough to understand that we do not expect them, and to anticipate the consequences, but he says them anyway. And that is probably a good thing.
There are very many things about Senator Obama which I do not like and which very well may keep me from voting for him. The point here being made has nothing to do with whether his unfortunate baggage would make him a bad president. The point is that he seems to be taking a different tack than is customary. This suggests the possibility that he is more interested in pointing out root problems and their consequences, than in immediate uplifts in the polls.
This may not be something with which we are prepared to live, or even something that can get through our filters of political correctness. But the mere appearance that Senator Obama is trying is a hopeful sign.