WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's dark depiction of small-town voters as embittered by their economic circumstances revealed how he sees the American spirit. But it's a bit premature to start writing his political obituary.
It was the height of political irony that the candidate known for his poised and fluent speaking skills stumbled over the words he chose to describe voters in rural Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton's support is strongest in that state's upcoming primary.
Candidates are gaffe-prone, even the best of them, because they speak so much, usually off the cuff, and eventually they drop their guard and put their foot in their mouths. But it is hard to think of another gaffe that in the course of one sentence managed to offend so many voting blocs: gun owners, religious voters, anti-trade union members, anti-immigration critics and small-town, working-class people in general.
Obama was talking about voter frustration with their circumstances as well as a feeling of helplessness in the face of an economic restructuring and decline that has produced a depth of pessimism and anger at the grassroots not seen since the days of Jimmy Carter.
But Obama made the worst mistake a politician can make -- he denigrated voters.
The man whose "audacity of hope" fueled his meteoric rise to political fame said these people were "bitter" -- i.e., absent of hope. Then he compounded his blunder when he tied that bitterness to specific groups of people who held common political positions and beliefs -- like the right to own a gun or apply religious values to one's political decision making.
It is impossible to believe that Obama, speaking before a group of left-wing campaign donors in San Francisco (notorious as the home of the blame-America-first crowd), was not revealing his own deep-seated views about middle-American voters who used to be known as Reagan Democrats.
The result was predictable. Clinton pounced on him like a panther on its prey with an all-out attack that included a TV ad in which voters said they were insulted and that he was out of touch with America.
Obama, however, responded with an effective counteroffensive that used his usual rhetorical skills and political cunning. He said he "regretted some of the words I chose," in part because they were a distraction from the bigger issues in the election.
Then, at an Associated Press luncheon here, he cautioned Democrats to "make sure that, during this primary contest, we're not damaging each other so badly that it is hard for us to run in November."
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