In the Arena

Obama Embittered?

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I’ve just spent the day watching McCain and Obama at the Associated Press festivities in Washington, DC–and it was not nearly as much fun as watching them perform out in the bitterlands, although a room filled with hundreds and hundreds of journalists would probably have a deadening effect on anyone (except, perhaps, McCain–about whom more in my print column this week).

Obama was surprisingly flat. He had the look of a candidate who had gotten bad overnight poll numbers (though not from the dire, 20-points behind, ARG Pennsylvania poll blowing through the blogosphere this afternoon–it was taken before Obama’s deeply depraved and blood-curdling statements about small-town America were loosed upon an outraged world). (Oh, you didn’t think of them as all that awful? Me neither. A little awkward, perhaps. But we’re the middle of a media tornado now. Dorothy you’re not in What’s the Matter with Kansas, anymore.)

Or maybe, Obama just had the look of a candidate faced with an opponent who doesn’t disagree substantively with him on any major issue, but has spent the last month throwing the “kitchen sink strategy” at him. In fact, there was a dangerous little edge of pissed-offedness, uh, bitterness in his speech and his responses to written questions from the crowd. In a response to a–should I say, very journalistic–process question about whether the long primary had damaged the Democratic Party, Obama said he didn’t think so, but admitted some frustration in trying to figure out “how to show restraint” in the primary battle, even though, “Senator Clinton may not feel she can be as restrained” since she’s trailing in the race. He added, with mild snark, that he was grateful to Clinton toughening him up by “deploying most of the arguments the Republicans will use against me in November.”

Well, you’d be…embittered, too. But he’s also right: the God and guns aspect of this dust-breeze is a distraction that the G.O.P. will trot out again in the fall. In fact, Hugh Hewitt trotted it out against me a few weeks ago on his radio show when I said the usual wedges weren’t going to work this time, since we were in the midst of two wars, an economic crisis and a desperate need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Hewitt responded that he thought those were issues the “elites” cared about. People in Ohio sure didn’t. He has a cousin in Ohio, apparently. And so, here we go again: 81% of the public says things are moving in the wrong direction, the President’s approval ratings are below freezing, but we’re still going to have the same old campaign as 2000 and 2004. I’d guess the public is in a much different place but, unlike Hewitt, I don’t have a cousin in Ohio–just six months of interviewing disgusted Americans in the hinterlands. (My Ohio cousin moved to Los Angeles, not far from where Hewitt lives.)

Again, the San Francisco utterances were not a high point of Obama’s campaign–not least because they were uttered in the favorite debauched city of right-wing talk show hustlers, a sure target for God’s next natural wrath. Obama got the bitterness right, but he blew the back end of the equation. He included some of the righteous things Americans “cling to” in good times and bad, like God and weaponry, with anti-trade and anti-immigrant resentments, which usually swell only when times grow hard.
Again, this hasn’t helped Obama’s problems connecting with some white voters–a serious political deficit, though more a matter of style than substance. But he has not unleashed the plague here. And as Hillary Clinton–who was booed when she brought this up in Pittsburgh this morning–may have learned, it is very easy to overbluff such a flimsy hand.