What Underlies Obama's Analysis of "The People"

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Mr. Ribuffo, who teaches history at George Washington University, is author of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression and the Cold War.

The controversy over Senator Barack Obama’s remarks about “bitterness” in small town Pennsylvania will bring back memories to anyone who has studied social and political movements during the past half century. Asked on April 6 why his candidacy had failed to catch fire among voters in such places, Obama responded that the “jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people not like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Obama’s second sentence calls to mind the ways in which “consensus” historians and “pluralist” social theorists fifty years ago interpreted the behavior of angry Americans, especially residents of rural areas and small towns. Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer and (following their lead) many less well-known scholars attributed middle American anger to anomie, alienation, cultural lag, status anxiety, and/or a psychological “paranoid style.” In its heyday, which lasted from roughly 1955 to 1975, this intellectual orthodoxy served as a default explanation of anyone who shunned pragmatic wheeling-and-dealing in favor of allegedly pointless symbolic politics. The typical list of outsiders and long run losers included the Federalist party, the Whig party, the Populist party, the Ku Klux Klan, Coughlinites, McCarthyites, Goldwaterites, and post-World War II evangelical Protestants (who were supposed to have faded into oblivion after the Scopes monkey trial). On the other side of the congealing right-center-left spectrum, essentially the same social-psychological defects were said to motivate Communists, Popular Front liberals and “sixties” campus radicals.

Consensus-pluralist theory was partly a reaction against the previous orthodoxy—a buoyant celebration of “the people” that dominated the Great Depression. According to that era’s default explanation of social change, “the people” were innately progressive, practical, and heroic. As C. Vann Woodward rightly noted in an early critique, the consensus-pluralist orthodoxy reflected the intellectuals’ post-World War II disenchantment with “the people.” Often repentant radicals, they concluded in retrospect that “the people” weren’t very wise after all. On the contrary, at any moment they might turn into totalitarian “mass men.”

Numerous critiques of the consensus-pluralist orthodoxy have appeared since the sixties, including a few by me (especially in the book noted in my bio line at the top of this article). There were three debilitating problems with this theory. First, it tended to be reductionist. Church attendance, ethnic solidarity, and other allegedly atavistic behavior were typically dismissed as social-psychological symptoms devoid of any sensible rationale. Second, consensus historians and pluralist social theorists rarely applied their critique in even handed fashion. Thus the revolutionary rhetoric of scruffy campus radicals in the sixties was attributed to student status anxiety while the claim by distinguished scholars that these kids resembled the Hitler Youth of the Weimar Republic was considered an insightful analogy. Third, the arbitrary distinction between rational interest politics and irrational status or cultural politics would surprise anyone who ever won an election or led a successful popular movement.

Despite these defects, the best pluralist and consensus thinkers advanced our understanding of how “the people” act beyond the clichés dominant during the Great Depression. With the possible exception of the most extreme “rational expectations” economists, few scholars would now dismiss out of hand all social-psychological explanations of church-going, deer hunting, or general grumbling by unemployed auto workers or status anxious academics. Since popular psychology in its self-help idiom has thrived in the United States for more than a century, most of “the people” themselves might (depending on their mood) be open to explanations of their own behavior that go beyond attributions of innate wisdom, altruism, and heroism. Accordingly, there is nothing exceptional about Obama’s April 6 comments except that they came from a presidential candidate.

To be sure that is a big except. For the past several days, therefore, Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton have been dueling about the implication of his words in interviews, speeches, and parallel appearances on a CNN “Compassion Forum.” Guns appeared here and there in this controversy but the central theme has been the connection between religion and “the people.”

Senator Clinton claimed to infer from Obama’s April 6 remarks that he is “elitist and out of touch” with American “values and beliefs.” Small town Pennsylvanians, she added, “do not need a “president who looks down on them.” Not only were Obama’s words offensive, but the place he uttered them was also suspect: “a closed door fund raiser in San Francisco.” Although Clinton fondly mentioned hunting trips with her father, she focused on lessons learned growing up in a “church-going family.” Emphasizing Obama’s most politically incorrect words, Clinton declared, “The people of faith I know don’t cling to religion because they are bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich.”

In response Obama mixed a low key counter attack with a clarification of his message, the same tactics he used on March 18 to defend his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In this case the low key counter attack poked fun at Clinton’s references to hunting; she was “talking like she’s Annie Oakley.” As to the alleged elitism of his April 6 remarks, he had merely said “something everybody knows is true.” There are a “whole bunch of folks in small towns . . . who are bitter” as a result of an economic decline. In such circumstances, “you turn to what you can count on,” Obama said. For many men and women, this meant voting “about guns” or taking “comfort from their faith and their family and their community.” This behavior was “natural.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream news media have played their usual giddy and obtuse role in escalating the controversy. The worst single comment came from Michael Gerson, an evangelical former speech writer for President Bush. Speaking on CNN after the “Compassion Forum,” Gerson accused Obama of “crude academic Marxism.” Has Gerson really never encountered un-crude social and psychological interpretations of religious practice—for example, Max Weberism, William Jamesism, or H. Richard Niebuhrism?

What can we learn from this stump speech version of the venerable intellectual debate about “the people?” What does it show about the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates and their understanding of the country they want to lead?

Although Senator Clinton has undoubtedly encountered Max Weberism, William Jamesism, and perhaps even H. Richard Niebuhrism, Obama’s off-the-cuff social psychology of religion may well have offended her. By all accounts, she has been a serious Methodist social gospeler since adolescence. Unlike many social gospelers, she feels the presence of a transcendent God in her daily life.

Obama calls himself a “devout Christian” and—alas, this needs to be stressed--there is no reason to doubt this self-description. Yet, perhaps because he embraced Christianity as an adult, his faith looks much more cerebral than Senator Clinton’s. Like Jimmy Carter, Obama has absorbed the central ideas of “Christian realist” Reinhold Niebuhr (H. Richard’s equally smart brother). It is hardly surprising, then, that a social-psychological explanation of religious (and other) behavior comes easily to him.

Obama’s background yields no automatic affinity with small town America or with the broader white working class (which is now enjoying perhaps its brightest moment in the political sun since Richard Nixon conceptualized the “silent majority” in 1969). Even so, Obama is no latter-day version of the condescending consensus-pluralist theorists. He neither reduces the behavior of “bitter” Americans to psychological symptoms nor regards their “symbolic politics” of guns and God as unrelated to their economic circumstances. In reiterating “what everybody knows is true,” Obama shows a respect for voters unusual among candidates with a chance to win. He believes that “the people” can accept embarrassing truths at least some of the time.

In a curious way Senator Clinton shares more common ground than Obama with the condescending consensus-pluralist theorists. However much Clinton may be personally offended by Obama’s ad hoc social psychology of religion, she is also pursuing a strategy to gain votes. Perhaps, as Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, Glazer, and others argued a half century ago, “the people” can be induced to oppose a candidate because his words injure their self-esteem.

As for what “the people” themselves think, we shall see.

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Elliott Aron Green - 4/21/2008

Rodney, you indicate that Obama was sympathetic to his typical Pennsylvanian in his overgeneralized view of Pennsylvanians. But sympathy is close to pity which is just the other side of the coin of contempt.

Now, I think that it is necessary to do some research on why Communism was so appealing in the 1930s and not in the 1980s and 90s, the period that Obama was referring to. Communism too is/was a belief system, like a religion. Indeed, Marx, was influenced by both Hegel and Kant. They in turn were greatly influenced by certain Medieval Christian notions, as well as by Luther of the 16th century. So Communism in a sense retains some of the medieval Christian heritage, especially in its views of Jews [see, inter alia, Robert Misrahi, Marx et la question juive, and my article, available on the web, entitled something like, "Reason, Science and Progress, Modern Pretexts for Judeophobia", on the www.acpr.org or www.acpr.org.il site].

Why do I consider Obama a faker?? He insists that he is something new, fresh, innocent, untainted by Washington corruption. Yet Zbig Brzezinski and Washington oldtimers are already part of Obama's team. He is hardly innocent and untainted by Washington corruption. Just think of the damage that Zbig did during carter's term in office with his support for Khomeini to take over Iran and his fostering the Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Was the cure worse than the disease?? We can't yet be sure. But it's close.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/21/2008

Yes, Jonathan, they're all elitists. But Obama is the most sinister since he is such a superb demagogue.

Shawn McHale - 4/19/2008

A community activist is someone who goes into a particular community to organize, or help organize, residents. How this process works differs from organization to organization. Some community organizations do indeed try to raise money from government to help support their work. Others don't at all.

As for what exactly these organizations do -- that, too, varies. The organization I once worked for as a community organizer, ACORN, would go into a neighborhood. We'd knock on door after door after door, trying to find out what issues were of concern to the residents of the neigborhood. These issues could be very small -- like getting a street light repaired. Or it could be something like abandoned housing, poor schools, crime. The organizers would go in, try to identify leaders in the community, and then try as much as possible to have local leaders take the reins of power.

It's tough work, and the pay is low. I seem to remember that my pay per year was $7,000 in 1983 -- for 70 hour weeks. Obama made more.

Jonathan Pine - 4/18/2008

"Hillary cares about “US and will restore our greatness at home and abroad. Go PA, bring her on to the rest of “US” by a landslide."

This is delusional. And by the way, McCain, Hillary, and Obama are all elitists.

Rodney Huff - 4/18/2008

Marx certainly did develop a kind of religion with his view of history, which incorporated a materialistic version of Hegel's metaphysics. But I don't see how this detracts from the truth spoken by Obama (or for that matter Marx's diagnosis of capitalism).

I don't think Obama was expressing contempt for these people. He was being sympathetic, trying to see things from their perspective while connecting, as C. Wright Mills would say, personal troubles with public issues. Obama was using his "sociological imagination," which requires a certain breadth of view and grasp of history that go beyond mere "local knowledge" without dismissing it.

Obama could have said the same thing about where I'm from, a small town in MD that's not far from a large KKK headquarters. If he had said the same thing about small towns in Cecil County, I wouldn't have felt insulted; I would have agreed, knowing that it was generalization - a valid one - and that there are always exceptions to generalizations -me being one of them. I think that "the exceptions" know who they are (and this goes for people in small PA towns as well) and recognize the validity of a generalization that has a firm empirical basis in history and the social sciences - from Marx to Weber to Mannheim to Veblen to Mills to Lenski to E. Becker and others.

I don't think we should assume, as mainstream media is apt to do, that people can't handle a little dose of truth in politics, that people need to be coddled or shielded from the fact that they live in a society full of contending interests, and that the dominant interests have an interest in alligning "the people" against their own interests by dividing them and getting them to focus on a single issue - whether it's gun control, abortion, or gay marriage - to the exclusion of major economic issues that are a real source of hardship for working people everywhere (NAFTA, the trade deficit, the national debt, Wall Street bailouts, the military-industrial complex, etc.).

As for Obama being a "faker" - I hope you're wong.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/17/2008

Rodney, I can see some merit in a sociological/psychological analysis of why people may turn to religion in a time of stress or defeat or emotional depression, etc. You may also know that during the Great Depression of the 1930s many people in America and elsewhere turned precisely to Communism and other socialist/Marxist creeds as a source of comfort at a time of stress, increased poverty, unemployment, etc. Maybe, according to Obama's sociology, Communism, etc., too would have to be considered a religion/s/.

Be that as it may, Obama generalized drastically about Pennsylvanians. And in particular about registered Democrats. Some of them may live in small towns, others live in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Scranton-Wilkes Barre, etc. Some are unemployed, others not. Many hunt with guns today as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers did when the coal mines, steel mills, and clothing plants were operating and looking for working hands. By the way, I have been in the Pennsylvania mountains in the Spring, and its beautiful. So I can understand how people would want to go into the mountains there. Anyhow, back to Obama. He made unwarranted assumptions about these people [Pennsylvania Democrats] and overgeneralized, expressing a certain contempt for them.

That said, I think voting for Obama is the most irrational choice one could make in this presidential election campaign. He presented a false picture of himself, much falser even than Hilary with her landing in Tuzla under sniper fire. I discuss his fakery in a previous post above. Can anyone who loves peace vote for Obama knowing that Zbig Brzezinski and other unsavory types lurk in the background???
Furthermore, Obama's campaign appeals were emotive rather than rational, as I said in a post above. His slogan "change" is simplistic and deceptive and indeed sinister in the extreme.

None of the above means that I am fond of either Hilary or McCain. But Obama is the most dangerous, as I explained above. At least in my opinion.

Rodney Huff - 4/17/2008

"Obama denied --essentially-- that they could be making up their minds based on facts and rational analysis. This is an insult to those people."

It is (or should be) a truism that in times of stress people tend to fall back on (or invent) traditions in hopes of getting a better handle on their situation - regardless of whether that "better handle" leads people to address the true source of their frustrations or not.

Deteriorating socio-economic conditions or catastrophic events can induce such stress. What's so insulting about this observation?

This is a truth I know not just from reading history but from my own experience. Immediately after 9/11, my father became a born-again Christian, embracing finally the faith of my devout grandmother in a time of great stress. Also, what did a lot of people across the country do soon after the attacks? They went to church. Others, like me, took note of this and saw how once again, in times of widespread stress and anxiety, people tend to fall back on traditional sources of comfort.

Of course this does not mean religion is the opiate of the masses, as Marx concluded. It certainly can be, but not necessarily. Why? Because, besides reconciling some people with injustice in this world with the promise of justice in the afterlife, Christianity has also been used as a rallying point for social protest, such as when Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to Jesus' teachings in his critique of the American class structure.

(Moreover, when did religious convictions or leaps of faith involve rational analysis? Pascal's wager involved rational analysis but was by no means an expression of true faith. As any true believer will tell you, faith is irrational. If you told true believers that they believe because of some cool-headed calculation or rational analysis, you would no doubt be insulting them. For what would their faith be worth if it depended on 1 + 1 = 2 or some other impersonal fact?)

Now, combining felt stress with misinformation and propoganda can lead to a lot of misguided energy. For instance, in this time of increasing job scarcity, we are often told by the corporate-controlled media that immigrants are "stealing" jobs from Americans. However, it's more accurate to say that employers give these jobs away to the lowest bidder to juice up the bottom line. Obviously, if businesses weren't illegally hiring these people, they wouldn't be coming over here in the first place.

But this simple fact gets obscured by mainstream media's obsessive focus on the "illegality of the immigrant" rather than the "illegal hiring practices" of businesses, not to mention the devastating impact of NAFTA on Mexican farmers, that entice these people to accept jobs employers are willing to give them. If we were in their position, we'd probably do the same thing to help our families prosper.

But since these simple facts get obscured by the relentless media focus on immigrants rather than employers, anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be a growing source of misguided energy. In this case, people are reacting rationally to propaganda that diverts attention from the source of the problem (i.e. illegal hiring practices, NAFTA).

On the other hand, if given a fuller picture of what's going on, people can react rationally and address the source of the problem and thus begin to solve the problem.

Paul Wolman - 4/16/2008

Thank you, Shannon, for providing this on-the-scene perspective and context. Your post demonstrates that conscientious research and close attention trump reflexive media bloviation--or should.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/16/2008

John Newman thinks that Obama is a "breath of fresh air." I think that his line is stale, a rehash of Carter's 1976 claim to be untainted by Washington corruption, and equally false of course. Obama pretends to be new, innocent, fresh, blah blah blah. Yet, Zbig Brzezinski hovers in Obama's background. Zbig, if Newman doesn't know, was Carter's national insecurity advisor. The Zbig-Carter foreign policy was disastrous for America and the world. It seems that Obama wants to bring back Zbig to do more damage to peace and civilization. Obama is as much a faker as the other two leading candidates, especially so as his assumed persona [fresh, young, new, innocent, etc.] is false. Doesn't Newman remember what samantha power said about bringing troops home from Iraq??? She said that Obama would first consult with his advisors and they would decide if and when to withdraw troops. Maybe it was samantha's excessive frankness as much as her calling hilary "a monster" that got her pushed out of the Obama campaign.

Ribuffo showed that the way Obama psychologized and sociologized the Pennsylvania small town voters is a stale analysis going back to the 50s at least. Obama denied --essentially-- that they could be making up their minds based on facts and rational analysis. This is an insult to those people. Obama is also subtly suggesting that voting for anyone but himself is irrational, bigoted, no more than the politics of ressentiment, etc.

In my view, Obama is the most dangerous candidate of all because of his superb talents as a demagogue. He has even gotten many academics to dance his shallow, nearly meaningless slogans that are more emotive than rational or factual.

Robert Lee Gaston - 4/15/2008

I keep reading that Mr. Obama was a community activist and community organizer.

Will someone please tell me; what does a community activist and/or organizer do? How does one make a living at it?

I suspect it has something to do with using money received from government grants to write proposals for more government grants.

How can these people have any insight into how the typical person goes about their daily life? They have spent their entire life in “government service” (at our expense). This applies to all three of them.

From reading about his remarks about small town folks, I’m afraid Mr. Obama was far too into the social sciences, and he believed it.

John Groverson Newman - 4/15/2008

Right on the money. And that's why Mr. Rifuffo won't be invited to any panel on Fox. I know my fellow citizens are "bitter," feeling fed up, frustrated etc., and hanging on to whatever brings them some modicum of comfort and securityl. I know this because I talk with my fellow Americans everyday.

The "news" as usual makes much ado about nothing.

Qualified or not, win or lose, Obama is a breath of fresh air. I respect John McCain for periodically standing tall with "straight talk" but he's succumed to "prize fever" and Hilary continues to write her own shameful epitaph.

Mary Louise O'Bryan - 4/14/2008

Typical "Snob-ama", makes a mistake and then blames someone else (Hillary and/or McCain). Then, even worse, goes on the attack of the other Democrat in the race for calling him on his own elitism. Let me see, it was just last night that he condemned Hillary for attacking him, wasn’t it? What a two-faced hypocrite and used her words too, “shame on you”. Also folks, let us not forget folks where Obama's money is coming from, in his battle for President. His money trail now reveals that he received nearly half of all the millions collected thus far, from big donors. That would be nearly $115,000,000 million of the more than $230 million thus far. Not to mention the fact that Obama reported his money came from all small donor supporters. Instead, it seems, the money is funneling in from filthy rich big name/big money raisers and thousands of top dollar contributors at $2300 each/maximum allowed by law, contributor. I knew he didn't have a larger, or even as large of a grassroots organization, as Hillary. His bid for the Whitehouse is being bought and paid for just like Bush's,the elitist. I thought Obama was different? Of course, there are also the fundraisers on the web that represent the far left, (Huffington Post, Move-On, etc.) who are collecting for him from their membership (2 Million plus members) for Obama. I used to support Move-On on some of their causes until they endorsed Obama. I know they are raising money for him because they continue to send me e-mails for donations for Obama. Wake-up America, you are being hoodwinked and now being called names as he looks down his nose at “US”, by this arrogant and elitist jerk trying to buy his way into the Whitehouse! It is not too late to stop him if the rest of “US” left to vote do so for Hillary. Hillary cares about “US and will restore our greatness at home and abroad. Go PA, bring her on to the rest of “US” by a landslide.

Elliott Aron Green - 4/14/2008

... So MAYBE Obama is justified in viewing some voters as dumb...

Elliott Aron Green - 4/14/2008

Dr Ribuffo, do you see Obama as respecting voters in general or the white working class in particular??

If he respects the white working class, then why did he belong to Rev Wright's church for 20 years, listening to diatribes against America [I myself do not usually support US foreign policy, for the record], some of which were clearly hostile to the working class, white and otherwise??? For instance, Wright justified the 9-11 attack as some sort of just punishment for the USA. You are aware, aren't you, that most of those killed on 9-11 were workers, mostly white, if I'm not mistaken?? So Obama sat in his pew and listened to Wright and let his kids listen to Wright --who was spilling hatred directed, implicitly or explicitly against the average American worker.

Obama also insulted voters in general by using simplistic slogans like "change." But everybody wants change of some sort, that includes hilary, and Prez Bush Junior and Condoleezza Rice, McCain, and single girl who sits and waits for the phone to ring. So change is meaningless without specifics. Which kind of change? Change of what and how is it to be changed? By simply throwing out the "change" slogan Obama was making an emotional, not an intellectual or rational appeal to the voters. And those who bought it were fools. So many Obama is justified in viewing some voters as dumb.

Then there is Obama's claim to be fresh, young, new, innocent, untainted with the corruption of the old Washington gang. Meanwhile, lurking in the background were Zbig Brzezinski, a very ugly, old, and corrupt denizen of Washington plus several other old State Department hands, all of them corrupt, although Zbig is probably the most dangerous of all, judging by his record. As Carter's national insecurity advisor, Zbig helped bring us Khomeini in Iran, which means he helped bring us A-jad. Then he helped produce al-Qa`ida --indirectly-- by helping to train Osama bin Laden in his anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. Then he allowed Syria to consolidate its control of Lebanon and allowed Arafat's PLO/FAtah forces to develop military strongholds there. Thus Zbig helped to bring about Israel's defensive war in Lebanon in 1982.

Just where, Dr Ribuffo, do you find respect on Obama's part for white workers, black workers, or rational and knowledgeable folk of any color, or of his own groupies who respond to simplistic, shallow slogans???

Douglas Brian Anchell - 4/14/2008

Obama attracts thugs and bullies to his campaign and personal life and is able to do so with impunity.
If Obama where Caucasian, he would have been bulldozed by the media long ago.

Look at Obama’s affiliations:

- Senator Meeks who openly hates whites and gays and is listed prominently on Obama’s campaign website as a major Obama supporter and backer and is one of Obama;s super-delegate. Mr. Meeks has been integral in Obama success in politics.

- Mr. Ayers of the Weather Underground, a group that killed police and tried to bomb the US Capitol, served with Obama on the board of the leftist foundation called the Woods Fund.

- Robert Malley a close senior adviser to Obama who advocates negotiations with Hamas and providing international assistance to the terrorist group.

- Larry Sinclair alleges in 1999 Senator Obama’s arranged to meet him in a limousine, sold Senator Obama cocaine and then gave Senator Obama oral sex. Larry then claims that he and Obama went to a hotel and preformed oral sex again. Mr. Sinclair is testifying in court under oath that these allegations are true.

- Mr. Auchi is an Iraqi billionaire and major financial sponsor and closely connected to Obama’s rise to power.
While working with Saddam Hussein, Auchi made his fortune through the selling of arms in Iraq and the funneling off of money from the Oil for Food program.

- Mr. Rezko an Iraqi citizen and Obama’s and Auchi’s long time friend of 17 years and a major mob figure. Rezko is NOT known for his civic sense of duty and does not do favors without asking something in return. Coincidently the Chicago Times reported yesterday that Rezko was negotiating to purchase rehab buildings in Obama’s district.

- Mr. Wright a racist who hates America and whites (and Italians?). Mr. Wright has been Mr. Obama’s spiritual mentor for over 20 years. Before the media exposed Mr. Wright, he was Obama's chief religious advisor on Obama’s campaign staff. Mr. Wright and Mr. Meeks are ideologically closer to Karl Marx and Black Nationalism, than to Christianity.

- Rashid Khalidi a fundraiser for Obama and is one of Obama’s close friends. Khalidis claim Israel as a "catastrophe", and supports Palestinian terrorist groups.

- Mr. McPeaks is Obama’s military adviser and national campaign co-chairman who publicly states that American Jews are the "problem." and “Christian Zionists were driving America's policy in Iraq to benefit Israel.”

Abongo “Roy” Obama is the older brother to Senator Obama. Roy Obama is a militant Muslim activist in Kenya who according to a report from the Investor’s Business Daily has repeatedly urged his half brother Senator Obama to embrace African heritage and supports implementation of Sharia law.

- Michelle Obama trumpets Obama as “the second coming of the messiah,” and also states that she “has NEVER been proud to be an American in her adult life".

The list goes on…a list that strongly suggest Obama sympathizes with al-Qaida.

How can Obama’s bad judgment to choose to affiliate with criminals and fanatics be justified? And with so many red flags in Obama’s past, present rhetoric, and future intentions how could we possibly justify electing him into the most powerful position of this country?

Are we so in love with the color black that we forget to see the man?

Shannon Bertuch - 4/14/2008

More people were at the S.F. fundraiser and are coming forward with a more complete picture.

Last Sunday evening I attended the San Francisco fundraiser that has been the center of recent political jousting. The next day, when asked about the talk Obama delivered, I too commented about his answer to a question he was asked about Pennsylvania. Over the past week, though, I have had a Rashomon-like experience concerning those remarks.
Clinton, McCain, and media pundits have parsed a blogger's bootlegged tape of Obama's remarks and criticized a sentence or two characterizing some parts of Pennsylvania and the attitudes of some Pennsylvanians. In context and in person, Senator Obama's remarks about Pennsylvania voters left an impression diametrically opposed to that being trumpeted by his competitor's campaigns.
At the end of Obama's remarks standing between two rooms of guests -- the fourth appearance in California after traveling earlier in the day from Montana -- a questioner asked, "some of us are going to Pennsylvania to campaign for you. What should we be telling the voters we encounter?"
Obama's response to the questioner was that there are many, many different sections in Pennsylvania comprised of a range of racial, geographic, class, and economic groupings from Appalachia to Philadelphia. So there was not one thing to say to such diverse constituencies in Pennsylvania. But having said that, Obama went on say that his campaign staff in Pennsylvania could provide the questioner (an imminent Pennsylvania volunteer) with all the talking points he needed. But Obama cautioned that such talking points were really not what should be stressed with Pennsylvania voters.
Instead he urged the volunteer to tell Pennsylvania voters he encountered that Obama's campaign is about something more than programs and talking points. It was at this point that Obama began to talk about addressing the bitter feelings that many in some rural communities in Pennsylvania have about being brushed aside in the wake of the global economy. Senator Obama appeared to theorize, perhaps improvidently given the coverage this week, that some of the people in those communities take refuge in political concerns about guns, religion and immigration. But what has not so far been reported is that those statements preceded and were joined with additional observations that black youth in urban areas are told they are no longer "relevant" in the global economy and, feeling marginalized, they engage in destructive behavior. Unlike the week's commentators who have seized upon the remarks about "bitter feelings" in some depressed communities in Pennsylvania, I gleaned a different meaning from the entire answer.
First, I noted immediately how dismissive his answer had been about "talking points" and ten point programs and how he used the question to urge the future volunteer to put forward a larger message central to his campaign. That pivot, I thought, was remarkable and unique. Rather than his seizing the opportunity to recite stump-worn talking points at that time to the audience -- as I believe Senator Clinton, Senator McCain and most other more conventional (or more disciplined) politicians at such an appearance might do -- Senator Obama took a different political course in that moment, one that symbolizes important differences about his candidacy.
The response that followed sounded unscripted, in the moment, as if he were really trying to answer a question with intelligent conversation that explained more about what was going on in the Pennsylvania communities than what was germane to his political agenda. I had never heard him or any politician ever give such insightful, analytical responses. The statements were neither didactic nor contrived to convince. They were simply hypotheses (not unlike the kind made by de Tocqueville three centuries ago ) offered by an observer familiar with American communities. And that kind of thoughtfulness was quite unexpected in the middle of a political event. In my view, the way he answered the question was more important than the sociological accuracy or the cause and effect hypotheses contained in the answer. It was a moment of authenticity demonstrating informed intelligence, and the speaker's desire to have the audience join him in a deeper understanding of American politics.
There has been little or no reaction to the part of the answer that was addressed to the hopelessness of inner city youth who have been rendered "irrelevant" to the global economy. No one has seized upon those words as "talking down" to the inner city youth whose plight he was addressing. If extracted from the surreptitious taping by HuffPost Blogger Fowler, those remarks could (and may yet) be taken out of context as "Obama excuses alienation and violence by urban youth." But in context, Senator Obama's response sounded like empathetic conclusions and opinions of a keen observer: more like Margaret Mead than Machiavelli.
As the week's firestorm evolved over these remarks at which I was an accidental observer, I have reflected upon the regrettable irony that has emerged from Senator Obama's response to a friendly question: no good effort at intelligent analysis, candor -- and what I heard as an attempt to convey a profound understanding of both what people feel and why they feel it - goes unpunished. Such insights by a political candidate might otherwise be valued. In a national campaign subject to opposition research on bootlegged tapes, his analytical musing has instead created an immense amount of political flak.
Now and "in this time," to invoke one of the candidate's favorite riffs, such observations and remarks shared among supporters are just a push of a record button on hidden tape recorder away from being spread across the internet to be dissected by political nabobs. What struck me immediately after the fundraiser as so refreshing turned out to be a moment Senator Obama is forced to regret. Today we marvel at de Tocqueville insights about American communities. Apparently, such commentary is valued as long as it is three centuries old and doesn't come from the mouth of a contemporary observer who might be elected president.
So much for the political ironies. But there is one more personal observation that was missed by the secretly taping blogger.
I happened to be on the balcony when Senator Obama's vehicles arrived and he emerged from the Secret Service SUV. Obama shouted the friendly greeting "How are you guys up there doing?" to the group of us looking down from the balcony and then said, "You have to excuse me, I need to call my kids in Chicago now." All of us stood and watched the leading candidate for the Democratic party nomination for president have a short conversation with his kids before he entered a fundraiser to make his remarks.
No tape of that conversation has emerged as yet. Who knows how casual remarks of a father to his children or his wife on a cell phone could be spun to support the argument that as a father speaking to his kids two time zones away before they go to bed, his comments sounded as if he "looked down" upon them. Given his relative height and the age of his kids, he probably does. But that would be precisely as relevant to his capacity to unite and lead this country as were the remarks at the fundraiser that have been so deconstructed over this past week