As Ambinder and others have pointed out, Obama’s San Francisco “gaffe” echoed some of the ideas laid out by Tom Frank in “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” An important difference: those ideas sound a lot less condescending at book-length, packed with reporting and supported by historical research. I’m not sure if it should matter or not that Tom is actually from Kansas, and grew up with and has demonstrable affection for the people he wrote about. He is, in some ways, one of the people he wrote about.
Obama, clearly, is not one of those “bitter” Midwesterners he referred to — while marginally Midwestern, his whole brand is the opposite of bitter. And, of course, as far as we know, he has not “clung” to God or to guns. None of this means that there isn’t a kernel of truth to Obama’s point about why working class people sometimes vote against their economic self-interest, it just means that it is much, much harder for Obama to say it so bluntly without being attacked — as he is now — as being elitist.
But what if he hadn’t said it so bluntly? What if, for instance, he had pointed out that there’s been an “influx of illegals into places where they’ve never seen a Hispanic influence before,” and in places like Iowa, “they see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa.” Or maybe he had said that “economic anxiety” can “express itself as a hardline against immigration,” and “a very hard line against trade.”
Of course, as I’ve heard somewhere before, words do matter. Not just because eloquence can raise us up, but because in raising us up, eloquence allows us to face difficult subjects with renewed humility and compassion. As it did, for instance, when Obama talked about this very same dynamic of white ethnic bitterness in his much-praised post-Wright speech on race. How much should Obama be blamed for failing to reach the same rhetorical heights in an off-the-cuff talk in San Francisco? Were we all just fooled by his gracefulness when he talked about the justified anger of those who’ve had the “immigrant experience“? What he being elitist then, too? How much of the anger directed at Obama now stems not from the remarks themselves, but from the inelegant way in which he reminded us of something that’s hard but true?
I think Obama can survive this incident. Survive it easily, if “surviving” means simply securing the nomination. What this incident does do is give a preview of how Obama campaigns, and how he looks, when you strip away the glamor — of which his eloquence is a part — that’s protected him thus far.
Full disclosure: Tom Frank is a good friend of the Cox-Lehmanns.