Barack Obama was correct in his suggestion that once people start losing their jobs, they turn to God and guns. Contrary to what Hillary Clinton and John McCain are suggesting, Obama is not "elitist" and "out of touch" with "average Americans." His elitism and aloofness comes across the strongest in his penchant for equally criticizing Democrats and Republicans. Obama's critiques of American politics unnerves Clinton the most because she believes that she and her husband Bill are the vanguard of the Democratic party. Arguably Clinton's biggest beef with Obama's comments is not that he suggest citizens in Pennsylvania and Ohio are "bitter," but rather that he has the audacity to align the Clinton administration -- and subsequently the Clinton legacy -- with the legacy of both Bush administrations. If one reads Obama's comments closely, and places them within the general arc of his campaign's platform, you will notice a trend where he routinely suggests that the Bushes and Clintons are interchangeable. Therefore, Clinton's current campaign to make Obama choose his words carefully is part of her ongoing campaign to get him to stop dissing her and her family by equating them with the Bushes.
Now, if I were Hillary Clinton I would also become bitter if my family was regularly being presented as on par with the Bushes -- and just like Clinton I would do my best to get back at him for such remarks.
McCain's interest in all of this is distinct from Clinton's. The controversy surrounding these comments has created an opening for McCain to present Obama as the second coming of John Kerry instead of John Kennedy. McCain has inherited Dubya's "candidate you'd rather have a beer with" persona and sees this as a golden opportunity to cast Obama as a John Kerry-like wonkish, out of touch, drone. McCain knows that Obama is too charismatic for this too truly work, but he can not pass up any opportunity to make the pitch to voters that Obama is not one of us.
That said, for those who have been wondering why Barack Obama has not picked up John Edwards' campaign against poverty, we can point to the current sniping about his "bitter" comment as an example of why he has been tepid to do so. There is a precision required of him when talking about poverty and the anger that it incites which he, much less any candidate will be hard pressed to meet. The examination of his "bitter" comment resembles the psychoanalysis that erupted after Howard Dean's infamous Iowa yelp in that it overshadows the broader issues.
Obama is correct in his assessment, but this assessment is still incomplete. Here is what he claims:
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. 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.
One can argue that people not only cling to God and Guns, but they also cling to jobs. What Obama's comments failed to push forth is that this sense of desperation has been met with a overwhelming lack of political imagination. People are clinging to jobs that they barely like because they fear that other opportunities will not materialize -- this is the bitter legacy of deindustrialization -- when factories left, nothing came in to take their place. Therefore while these factories, mills are present, it's incumbent upon employees to do anything to keep their jobs -- hence the term job security. The history of labor in this country has quite often been a bloody one that has long been marked by fervent contempt for organized labor and immigrants. The ethnic and racial identities of these immigrants may change, but the contempt remains the same as more of them try making their way into local labor markets.
God/religion serves a variety of roles that span the full spectrum from conciliator to agitator within these conflicts, but because of the centrality of religious institutions in local communities, God/religion is never absent.
It would take too much unpacking to fully explore how all these things are related. We all know this, which is why so many of us have been become bitter about this political culture where sound bytes take precedence over sound analysis of the bitter fruits of American history
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