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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Obama, Small Town Whites, and the Super Delegates | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Obama Takes the Bait »

What Does "Bitter" Reveal?

The commentary on the few sentences Barack Obama uttered in San Francisco has clustered around two extremes. Roughly half see them as the revelation of his previously secret disregard for the beliefs of the mass public. The rest see them as self-evidently true, even if the words were poorly chosen.

My feeling is that we don't know what he meant. All of this analysis is based on brief, off-the-cuff remarks made behind "closed" doors. It is difficult to tease out a man's inner philosophy from such a slender data set. At best, we can only hope to have a vague sense of the thoughts that inspired the words. So, the quotation has been a bit of a Rorschach test. Commentators have seen what they are inclined to see.

This is one reason why, politically, it was a stupid thing to say. Candidates should not say vague things unless there is an identifiable benefit, like evading a journalist's direct question. Otherwise, clear and concise is the way to go. Vagueness implies interpretation. Interpretation implies discussion. Discussion eats up precious news cycles a week before the Pennsylvania primary.

And, of course, vagueness invites opponents to interpret, and therefore define. This is what we've seen. Clinton smartly chose to put her interpretation in the mouths of ordinary Pennsylvanians - and Obama was forced to respond by using the "boo's" at the Alliance for American Manufacturing meeting as the alternative interpretation. In one sense, this has already been a victory for Clinton. What is Obama spending money and airtime on? His comments in San Francisco! The Obama campaign seems to have learned one lesson from the Kerry/Edwards debacle. It doesn't let accusations go unanswered. However, it has not yet learned the other one. It needs to be more proactive in managing the definition of its candidate.

The other big problem with his comment is that Obama presumed to explain the behavior of the voters he is courting. We might not know for sure exactly how he was explaining them, but we know that he was trying to. This is something that is best left to political scientists, not candidates. They should never speak of voters in any but the most flattering terms. Otherwise, there is a risk of alienating them. When you analyze people, you are signaling that you are separate from them. You are an "other." What is more, nobody likes to feel that they are being analyzed. The analyst can come across as haughty. "Who the hell does he think he is to explain me?"

This is not the first time Obama has done this. His Wright speech sought to explain the behavior of the voters - black and white - he was courting. He really needs to knock this off. It is not the job of the candidate to analyze the voters. His job is to court them, to form a bond with them. He must have them believe that he understands them on their terms, not on some set of abstract principles derived from a book they've never heard of.

This is one reason "Bubba" and "Dubya" have won the last four presidential elections. Nobody ever tied those two to Theodore Adorno.

Of course, Obama did not analyze just any group of voters. He analyzed the ones Democrats need: whites who don't make a lot of money. In 1992, Bill Clinton and Herbert Walker essentially split the white vote. Clinton got 39%, Herbert Walker got 40%. This is all Democrats need. They don't need to win white voters outright. They just need to split them. Flash forward to 2004. Bush beat Kerry among white voters, 58% to 41%, and won a solid victory.

You can tell the same story again and again. When Democrats break even with white voters, they win, as in '60, '64, '76, '92, and '96. When Republicans win them decisively, Democrats lose. This happened in '52, '56, '80, '84, '88, '00, and '04.

So, what Obama really did last week was analyze the group that will swing this election.

I'm beginning to wonder if analysis is a problem for candidate Obama. All candidates have quirky "ticks" that impede them from being perfect campaigners. George W. Bush has a habit of mangling words. John Kerry has a habit of going off script. Al Gore has a slightly condescending tone to his voice. These are all basically knee jerk responses that candidates do without thinking. They don't mean anything by them; they're just "ticks." But they still distract people. Obama might have a knee jerk inclination to analyze. Maybe I'm wrong, but we have seen this happen enough to make me wonder. After all, he did publish an autobiography when he was just 34. Maybe he is an analyst by nature.

In a lot of other contexts, this is a highly desirable trait. But not in this one. He needs to stop this. So does his wife, who should never again tell us that we have a "hole in our souls." If this kind of stuff continues, Clinton and the Republicans might just get that "elite" label to stick.

There is some good news for Obama in all of this. The Pennsylvanians whom Obama was analyzing were mostly going to vote for Clinton, anyway. So, it's unlikely that the comment will damage him on Tuesday. It might cost him a point or two, but that's probably it. Of course, the reason this nomination battle is continuing through Pennsylvania is Obama has failed to woo lower income whites, the same voters he'll need in the fall.

-Jay Cost