Obama 'Small Town' Comments Draw Fire, Support
** UPDATED APRIL 12 WITH RESPONSES FROM MCCAIN, OBAMA, PUNDITS, AND VIDEO OF FUNDRAISER **
Sen. Hillary Clinton drew sharp disagreements with Sen. Barack Obama late Friday for comments he made suggesting that job loss and economic woes had compelled people in Pennsylvania to bitterness, "guns or religion or antipathy, or anti-immigrant sentiment."
"Pennsylvanians," she declared, "don't need a president who looks down on them. They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families."
The line was cutting and drew applause from the crowd. And it demonstrates that the Clinton campaign feels it has a political winner if not an issue that could dominate the news cycle for several days.
"If we start acting like Americans," Clinton continued, "and role up our sleeves we can make sure that America's best years are ahead of us."
Clinton's reaction came just hours after the Huffington Post first reported on Obama's statement on small-town resentment. She was beaten to the punch by Sen. John McCain, who chastised Obama not for lacking an optimistic tone, but for deploying "liberal elitist" rhetoric.
Obama's remarks, which were first reported by Mayhill Fowler at Huffington Post's Off The Bus, were as follows:
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 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.
Clinton addressed the Obama statement without prompting. Telling the crowd that, "it is being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter," the New Yorker immediately sought to draw a contrast.
"Well, that is not my experience," she said. "As I travel around Pennsylvania I meet people who are resilient, optimistic, positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard every day for a better future for themselves and their children"
UPDATE: McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt had this to say on Obama's remarks:
"It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," Schmidt said. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."
UPDATE: The Obama camp has released the following statement, responding to John McCain, via spokesman Tommy Vietor:
"Senator Obama has said many times in this campaign that Americans are understandably upset with their leaders in Washington for saying anything to win elections while failing to stand up to the special interests and fight for an economic agenda that will bring jobs and opportunity back to struggling communities. And if John McCain wants a debate about who's out of touch with the American people, we can start by talking about the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that he once said offended his conscience but now wants to make permanent."
Later, Obama responded in person at an event in Indiana:
"When I go around and I talk to people there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness. And what's worse is when people are expressing their anger then politicians try to say what are you angry about? This just happened - I want to make a point here today.
"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's its 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 rich. Senator 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? Senator 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."
UPDATE: The Clinton campaign emailed around harsh comments from two Republican pundits:
Grover Norquist: 'That sentence will lose him the election... He just announced to rural America: I don't like you.' "Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who leads an influential weekly meeting of conservatives, went as far as to argue that Obama's line would cost Democrats the White House. 'That sentence will lose him the election,' Norquist told ABC News. 'He just announced to rural America: 'I don't like you.'" [abcnews.com, 4/11/08]
Republican strategist Ed Rollins: Q: "On a scale of 1 to 10 how damaging is this?" Rollins: 'Ten.' [CNN, Lou Dobbs, 4/11/08]
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, emailed out a CNN segment where Gloria Borger, Jack Cafferty, and Jeffrey Toobin all defended the comments:
BLITZER: All right, Gloria, he's already being hammered by Hillary Clinton and John McCain for that matter for supposedly being an elitist and speaking ill of the people of Pennsylvania by suggesting that the economic problems there are causing them to become bitter and buying guns and becoming xenophobic and all of that. What do you think? Is this a real issue out there?
GLORIA BORGER: Well, Hillary Clinton said today, you know, I don't see bitter people out there, I see struggling people or whatever it is, but she said the people aren't bitter. But I think the people are angry and maybe Obama's terminology was in artful but I think he's expressing a sentiment of mad-as-hell-voters, not going to take it anymore, that we've seen throughout this election. And that's why perhaps voters are saying over and over again that they want to change. So I think Hillary Clinton is trying to make him into the elite candidate but he's talking about people being angry.
BLITZER: All right, and Hillary Clinton responded to the Obama comments this way; Jeff. Let me play her little sound bite.
HRC: 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. They're working hard every day for a better future for themselves and their children. Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them.
BLITZER: All right, Jeff. What do you think?
JEFF TOOBIN: I think that is so ridiculous. I mean that is not at all what Barack Obama said. I just think this is an example of how a campaign between the two of them can be purely destructive. And not elevate either candidate. I mean, Hillary Clinton is clearly distorting what Obama said. And by the way, what Obama said is factually accurate. It's been true throughout history that people who have economic problems lash out against various others. I mean, I just think it is an embarrassing for the Clinton campaign to hang on this as if it's some sort of gaffe by Obama.
BLITZER: It's not just the Clinton campaign, Jack it's also the McCain campaign. They issued a statement saying it's a remarkable statement and extremely revealing it shows an elitism towards and condescension towards hard working 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.
JACK CAFFERTY: Really? And this is from John McCain?
BLITZER: No, this is from Steve Schmidt a senior adviser for John McCain.
CAFFERTY: Look, Jeff's right. They call it the rust belt for a reason. The great jobs and the economic prosperity left that part of the country two or three decades ago. The people are frustrated. The people have no economic opportunity. What happens to folks like that in the Middle East, you ask? Well, take a look. They go to places like al Qaeda training camps. I mean, there's nothing new here. And what Barack Obama was suggesting is not that the people of Pennsylvania are to blame for any of it. It's that the jerks in Washington, D.C., as represented by the ten years of the Bushes and the Clintons and the McCains who have lied to and misled these people for all of this time while they shipped the jobs over seas and signed phony trade deals like NAFTA are to blame for the deteriorating economic conditions among America's middle class. I mean, I'm a college dropout and I can read the damn thing and figure it out.
BORGER: You know, in this case the Hillary Clinton campaign and the John McCain campaign have the same goal and that is to portray Obama as this sort of (inaudible) elitist who doesn't understand the real working class people or independent voters. And so they're both on the same side on this one and it's obvious why.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeff.
TOOBIN: I just think it's remarkable that Barack Obama, this guy who grew up in a single-family household with no money, who lived in Indonesia, who came from very modest upbringings, somehow he's the elitist? That's really a pretty extraordinary sort of contortion of his background. I mean.
BORGER: It's that Harvard, Yale thing.
CAFFERTY: He did not make $109 million in the last eight year did he?
UPDATE: The Politico's Ben Smith posted this video taken from inside the San Francisco fundraiser: