Obama doesn’t understand a great deal of America. He has no experience with it other than as a politician looking for votes, and even that experience outside of Chicago has been accumulated only since he began his run for the U.S. Senate in 2003. His life has made him keenly aware of urban dysfunction and of African-American issues even as it has exposed him to the Third World in a way that very few American officials have been.
But he is blind to what makes most American communities work. His family experiences and his work experiences have never immersed him in the majority of America that not only functions but indeed thrives. His projection on to that America of his own beliefs — that odd mix of the beliefs assembled during his very unusual childhood, in Hawaii’s most privileged school, on Chicago’s south side, and at Columbia and Harvard Law School and Trinity’s congregation– has opened a lot of eyes to just how different Obama’s vision of America is.
There is a furious amount of spinning underway to save Senator Obama from the consequences of his candid assessment of Americans who don’t live in the big cities or on the coasts. Howard Kurtz, for example, wants to narrow the impact of Obama’s slight to just small town Keystone staters, and also asserts that everyone knows what Obama meant.
“And yet, most people (and most journalists) know what he was trying to say,” Howard opined. “Not that small towners are gun nuts. Or religious nuts, not from a regular churchgoer. The senator was trying to say that these folks voted on social issues, distracting wedge issues, when their real problem was economic.”
I don’t think that’s what he meant at all. He meant that most Americans are bitter. And Senator Obama agrees with me.
Senator Obama doubled down in this appearance at the Compassion Forum last night. (RCP has the transcript here.) In fielding a question about poverty from Jim Wallis, Obama added this explanation:
You know, this actually goes back to the earlier point you raised where Senator Clinton suggested I was being elitist when I said that people are frustrated and bitter. That is absolutely true. That’s not just true in small towns. That’s true in urban areas. That’s true in my community of the South Side of Chicago. Because people feel forgotten. They feel as if nobody is listening in Washington.
Politics as therapy; Americans as bitter, failed people. That’s the senator’s story and he’s sticking with it. It is the very vision that motivated Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech –“It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper — deeper than gasoline lines of energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession”– recycled and with a much better delivery.
But Obama’s vision just isn’t true for the majority of Americans. Most Americans are productive and generally happy; hard-working and actively involved in their communities through church and their children’s schools.
Most Americans are generous, and favorably disposed towards strangers and eager to help the world.
Obama doesn’t know this America, which is certainly the backbone of most suburbs, small towns and rural communities in flyover-country and, truth be told, on most of the coasts outside of the largest urban centers.
What Obama knows is the world in which he has lived, which is a strange combination of some of the toughest neighborhoods in the U.S. and its most elite institutions. He belonged to a church that indulged radical politics in its weekly bulletin and from its pulpit even as it struggled to help some devastated neighborhoods. He did so after attending and absorbing the attitudes of America’s most elite law school and having been taught by its –mostly– hard-left professors. He does so from the lofty perch of the U.S. Senate. He’s had a schizophrenic life that combined the toughest aspects of America and its most indulgent.
No wonder he is clueless about “flyover land.”
Obama also talked last night about his membership in Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s church and his days as an “organizer”:
OBAMA: Well, I actually wrote about this in my second book, “Audacity of Hope” I had worked as an organizer on the South Side, as I mentioned and it was tough work.
OBAMA: You know, the community was in difficult straits. And I was bringing churches together to set up job training programs and after-school programs for youth and to try to bring economic development to the community.
I had been raised in a nonreligious home. My mother was the most spiritual person I know, but was mistrustful of organized religion, in part because of some of her experiences seeing segregation being compatible with organized religion. And so we went to church very infrequently.
So as I’m doing this organizing, some of the pastors started saying, You know, you’ve got great ideas, Obama, but, you know, if you’re going to organize churches, it might help if you were going to church.
And I thought, Well, that’s not an unreasonable position. And so I started visiting some churches. Trinity United Church of Christ was one of the churches that we were trying to get involved in the organization.
I visited that church and found the ministries that they were doing on HIV/AIDS, on prison ministries, there were a whole host of wonderful ministries that they were engaged in. And Reverend Wright’s sermons spoke directly to the social gospel, the need to act and not just to sit in the pews.
And so I found that very attractive and ended up joining the church when I got out of law school. Now, I have to say that, you know, in reports subsequently, there’s been this notion that he was, by various terms, my spiritual adviser or my spiritual mentor. You know, he’s been my pastor.
And what that means is, is that, you know, the ministries that have been built in that church community have been very important to me. It also means that there are areas where we’ve disagreed on. And, obviously, the most recent loop that’s been playing — Reverend Wright’s greatest hits, so to speak…
… are, I think, both a distortion of who he is and what the church has been about, but also express…
… but also express, you know, some comments that I think are deeply offensive and are contrary to what I believe. And I’ve told him so and have made a lot of statements about that, including one pretty long one in Philadelphia.
But that doesn’t detract…
That, I think, doesn’t detract from the incredible church community that this is. And I think that all of us who have been part of a faith community know that the church is a body of believers and it brings in the imperfections of us, men and women.
And, you know, pastors are imperfect. Certainly, the membership is imperfect. I, as somebody who is sitting in the pews as a sinner, is imperfect. And, you know, that doesn’t detract from, I think, what the church is supposed to be about, which is to worship God and proclaim the good news.
A number of things stand out in these remarks.
First, Obama directs the audience to his second book when his first book, Dreams From My Father, is much more revealing about who he is and where he comes from, and which includes a very detailed account of his years as an “organizer.” This account explains a great deal of Obama’s projection of bitterness on to small city and town America.
Second, this is at best a highly edited portrait of Trinity and of Pastor Wright’s politics. “The most recent loop” Obama refers to hasn’t been countered by the release of an avalanche of Pastor Wright’s sermons proving that his incendiary remarks were exceptions to the rule. As we know from Dreams From My Father, the very first sermon Obama heard Pastor Wright preach included a denunciation of the “white man’s greed,” (Powerline has posted the audio here) and the church has indulged anti-semitic fanatics with lots of space in its bulletin. The good work that the church has certainly done should not excuse Senator Obama’s indifference to the extremist rhetoric it also embraced.
But it is the sheer length of time that Obama has spent as an organizer, lawyer and elected official from Chicago’s south side that is coming through in his projection of bitterness on to vast swaths of America.
It is clear that Obama has spent much of the last 30 years in and around some very dysfunctional neighborhoods full of some broken and almost certainly bitter people.
He has been hearing and speaking complaints against the powerful for just as long.
He has not been building a small family business and coaching in the AYSO league, making budget in a medium-sized corporation or manning the snack booth at the football game, teaching the AP English course or organizing the Knights of Columbus or Society of St. Vincent de Paul food drive.
I spent the last three days back in northeast Ohio, first as the speaker at a regional prolife lunch full of moms and dads and clergy, then at an Indians game, then in my home town of Warren which has seen more than its share of job losses and population decline. I was lucky to be there for the annual fundraiser for my Catholic high school, to see a lot of old friends working very hard to keep the school running and excelling. The cross-section of folks committed to the community, to the school, to the parishes and each other is reassuring that Obama’s gloomy vision is simply not true.
I don’t think Obama can persuade the majority of the non-urban U.S. that he will ever understand their communities or their lives. The past 72 hours built on the disconnect many were already feeling about Pastor Wright’s anger, and the corrosive effect on Obama’s appeal will be profound and prolonged. It may not be enough to resurrect Hillary’s campaign given that her distance from ordinary Americans is pretty profound as well, but John McCain’s claim on the respect if not the affection of Americans of all backgrounds will contrast sharply and to his favor with Obama’s condescending attribution of bitterness all around.