Barack Obama's poor choice of words at a San Francisco fundraiser has sparked the hopes of the Clinton campaign and piqued the interest of pundit and voter alike. Describing small town frustrations with a lackluster economy as bitterness, Barack Obama also suggested that gun culture and anti-immigrant sentiment are an outgrowth of those feelings.
Hillary Clinton was quick to jump on Obama's words, calling the remarks elitist and condescending, and arguing that small town voters in Pennsylvania were optimistic, not bitter. John McCain also saw an opening, suggesting that Barack Obama was clearly out of touch. Despite the story breaking on a Friday evening, opinion makers in the blogosphere, on cable news, and on the Sunday shows had reactions ranging from dismissive to outrage, with some suggesting that the comments might be Obama's very own "Macaca" moment.
Much of this talk seems quite overblown. It is, first of all, not elitist for a candidate for president to talk about the frustrations and anger that small town Americans have increasingly felt over the past eight years. It is, of course, not elitist for candidates to talk about jobs and trade in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but talk about ethanol and tax breaks while in Iowa and New Hampshire. Presidential campaigns are almost entirely about presidential candidates talking to -- and about -- the vastly different populations and cultures that make up this country.
More importantly, voters in small towns all across the Midwest have watched their jobs shipped overseas and their health care premiums skyrocket, all because of poorly crafted trade agreements and a government unwilling to confront the health care crisis. Those who still have jobs are finding their wages driven down and their mortgage rates skyrocketing, all because of a government that refused to regulate predatory lenders. Small town Americans have been beaten down by this economy and this administration. They deserve to be angry and cynical, frustrated and embittered.
Nevertheless, Obama's choice of words was poor, as has been acknowledged by the Senator himself. To this point, however, Obama appears ready to weather the storm for a number of reasons, not the least of which includes the continued ineptitude of the Clinton campaign. Already, Hillary Clinton has gone too far with her criticism of Obama, and is beginning to frame the issue in a way she might actually lose. By suggesting that Obama is out-of-touch at the same time that she insists that people are optimistic, not bitter, she is putting herself at great risk. After all, countless Pennsylvanians are in fact quite embittered at being abandoned by their government and will likely be unreceptive to the notion that they don't deserve to be. Hillary might be in touch with some, but it seems likely that Obama is in touch with far more.
It is also wise to avoid being too ironic when attacking an opponent. Throughout the weekend, Hillary has taken to talking about guns and drinking the occasional shot of whiskey, making sure to reminisce about learning to shoot and her fondness of hunting. Could there be anything more incredulous and condescending?
What is also particularly disturbing about Hillary's line of attack is the extent to which it seems to help no one other than John McCain. The Clinton campaign has all but admitted that the race, at this point, depends on convincing superdelegates that Hillary is more electable. But making Obama less electable will not make Hillary more. For superdelegates to overturn the pledged delegate count, Hillary will need more than just a preponderance of the evidence; she'll need to prove her superior electability beyond all reasonable doubt.
It also would seem that, for a number of reasons, the "bitter" controversy will do little to help John McCain. The Republican machine has already geared up to run a campaign that suggests that Obama is another Northeast educated elitist who can't connect with voters. To that end, Obama hasn't provided them with any new ideas. There is also no video of the comments and the only audio is too poor of quality to be used in an ad. Like Hillary, McCain may also find himself in a disadvantageous position when debating about which candidate is more in touch with the voters. Let us not forget that it is John McCain who shares a different view than the majority of Americans on nearly every issue. It is John McCain who seems to have only a passing understanding of the economic crisis and its impact on working class Americans.
The next few news cycles will be dominated by Obama's remarks which, by any measure, is a loss for the campaign. But timing continues to be uncannily fortunate for Obama. When seated next to each other at Wednesday's debate, Obama and Clinton will surely have to confront the issue. It will be understandably difficult for Clinton to call Obama a condescending elitist while face to face, and will also provide Obama with a chance to attack Clinton from a defensive position, a skill at which he has proven masterfully adept. His campaign will likely use the debate as an opportunity to shut down this narrative, at least for now.
Ultimately, we all have reasons to be embittered, having seen our government hijacked by those who seem entirely divorced from our aspirations. Small towns are occupied by some of those who deserve to be most frustrated of all. Barack Obama recognizes that our bitterness is not cured by ignoring it or dismissing it. It is cured by talking about it -- and working to replace it with hope.