Barack Obama clearly wishes he hadn't said what he did about the feelings of small town Pennsylvanians -- at least the way he explained it at that fundraiser in San Francisco. (Note to the candidate: there is no such thing as a "closed" event; there's always someone with an electronic device ready to blog on The Huffington Post).
Obama's not running for Sociologist-in-Chief. But there is a powerful element of truth in his comments. Starting in the elder Bob Casey's 1986 campaign for Governor, and again and again since, both James Carville and I have heard or read -- from focus groups or polling reports -- the frustration, anger, and yes, sometimes bitterness of people in depressed towns in the Keystone State who've had politicians promise them help that too seldom comes. Even in the Clinton years, when Pennsylvania gained jobs, the hollowed out economies of once-thriving blue collar communities were largely bypassed.
The political question here, of course, is whether the Clinton and McCain campaigns can exploit Obama's remarks to tag him as an "elitist" -- a label, their focus groups probably tell them, that can really hurt. Ironically, Obama's the one raised by a single mother. He's the one who only recently finished paying off his student loans. He doesn't know what it's like to have $100 million. The opponents who are attacking him are the ones who inhabit that financial neighborhood.
Hillary Clinton has seized happily on Obama's words as a way to distract attention from the latest flight of one of her husband's misguided missiles. Just as the video that irrefutably confounded her tale about sniper fire at the Tuzla Airport was being returned to the network vaults, President Clinton's ill-timed and inaccurate account of the episode rewound and replayed the tapes. Then Obama's talk gave her the chance to push the pause button. But now she has to be careful not to push the "elitism" attack too hard. The Clintons haven't lived in the real world for at least twenty-five years; they've been in a bubble surrounded by aides moving from one mansion to another. This doesn't mean they don't care or can't empathize. But it does make it awkward to damn the guy who was a community organizer helping laid-off steelworkers as someone who is out of touch.
The truth is that Obama didn't "demean" -- Senator Clinton's word -- the aggrieved residents of the forgotten Pennsylvania. Remarkably, he did demean not just the Bush, but the Clinton administration for letting them down. And by citing guns, religion, and opposition to immigration as things small town Pennsylvanians "cling to," he confused the comfort of the familiar with fear of "the other." Of course, faith and culture are refuges in distress -- and they should be. Obama knows and says that.
So his sociology wasn't clearly or ideally stated, but it was fundamentally right. The impact will be determined as Obama returns to Pennsylvania and then critically in the back and forth of the debate on Wednesday night. What he said in San Francisco was very different from Gary Hart's gaffe in 1984, when he lost the New Jersey Primary and the Democratic nomination by apparently comparing that state to a toxic waste dump -- at a fundraiser in, of all places, California. Will Pennsylvanians instead decide that Obama wasn't condescending to them, but empathizing with them -- and that their plight would be his mission as president?
No one gets to the nomination without going through the valley. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have learned that this year, and so has Barack Obama. Now he has to do it a second time, on another controversy. It's a test for him, for Clinton, and for the voters.