Obama Allies Avoid Trying to Explain Most Controversial Part of His Remarks

By MichaelJames

Apr 13, 2008 5:51pm

As Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his allies have locked into damage control mode and attempted to explain his controversial remarks about small-town Pennsylvanians, they’ve attempted to focus their pushback away from the most controversial part of his remarks to an elite crowd at a San Francisco fundraiser.

Obama told the crowd: "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. 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."

While the description of small town Pennsylvanians as "bitter" is certainly impolitic, many political analysts say it’s what follows that adjective that is potentially so alienating — the notion that small town folks "get bitter" after which "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."

But Obama allies are trying to focus on the "bitter" part alone.

A robo-call on behalf of the Obama campaign from Mayor John Brenner of York, Pa., says that, "Barack Obama understands us. He’s got it right, we are frustrated — frustrated with polices that enable businesses to leave our community, pensions to be stripped, health care benefits to be taken away and homes foreclosed.  Unlike his opponents, who have been part of the Washington establishment that are out of touch with us, Barack Obama will change Washington.  It is policies that hurt us. He will take on the special interests and fight for us."

Listen to the call HERE.

On Obama’s Web site, a public letter from 21 Pennsylvania "elected officials and community leaders from small towns and rural areas throughout Pennsylvania" defend him, saying, "What Sen. Obama said is that over the last 25-30 years, working class people in places like Pennsylvania have been falling behind, and that politicians in Washington haven’t been looking out for them.  He also said that, as a result, many people have become frustrated, angry and even bitter about all the broken promises. He was right."

No mention of the "cling"-ing to guns or religion.

Likewise, when Obama’s most valued surrogate in the Keystone State, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., took to CNN this morning, he steered clear of explaining the guns and religion part of Obama’s comments, even when pressed specifically to explain it.

"He expressed regret and we understand," Casey said. "I think he understands why some people could be offended by those words. But here’s the larger point.  He was trying to express the frustration that people feel, not only with this economy, but what has been happening in Washington, where special interests have had a stranglehold on the process in Washington."

Asked anchor Wolf Blitzer: "What did he mean when he said, they become bitter, and then he said, they cling to guns or religion.  What did he mean by that?"

"Wolf, I think he’s trying to express frustrations that people have," Casey said, "And there’s no question that people shouldn’t generalize about how people think about these issues.  I think he was just trying to express it.  He used a poor choice of words. He’s taken responsibility for it.  And he said he deeply regretted the words that he chose."

Obama, for his part, has tried to explain the most controversial part.

In an interview with the Winston-Salem Journal, he said, "If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that. … What I meant was something that I don’t think any of us can argue with, which is that people feel abandoned after 20 or 25 years of plants closing, jobs not coming back. People feel like Washington’s not listening to them, and as a consequence, they find that they can only rely on the traditions and the things that have been important to them for generation after generation. Faith. Family. Traditions like hunting. And they get frustrated.”

In Muncie, Ind., he said, per ABC News’ Sunlen Miller, "There are a whole bunch of folks in small towns … who are bitter. They are angry. They feel like they’ve been left behind. They feel like nobody’s paying attention to what they’re going through. So I said, well you know, when you’re bitter, you turn to what you can count on. So people, you know, they vote about guns or they take comfort from their faith, and their family, and their community, and they get mad about illegal immigrants who are coming over to this country, or they get frustrated about how things are changing. That’s a natural response. Now, I didn’t say it as well as I should have, because the truth is, is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation — those are important. That’s what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they’re being listened to." 

- jpt

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