By A. B. Stoddard - 04/16/08 04:56 PM EDT
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) may be nominated by his party and elected president, and even reelected.
But his small-town summation, delivered from San Francisco, has achieved “macaca”-esque fame and permanence in our political lexicon, forever linking a “hopemonger” with the word “bitter.” The sorry trajectory from inspiration to frustration resulted not only from his “clumsy” choice of words but because there are so many words Obama cannot say.
In his defense, the context of his full remarks from the fateful fundraiser reveal a sound intellectual argument in which Obama empathized with Americans who, disenfranchised by government for so long, have chosen other issues on which to vote. But context is never one to get in the way of a political hot potato. Obama responded forcefully but not deftly to the explosion his remarks provoked — the extra smoke, fire and debris came courtesy of Team Clinton. He didn’t run from his characterization, but he also didn’t successfully clarify that he meant that some Americans choose to vote on, not cling to, issues like guns or abortion because they no longer believe their vote has any effect on their job or their livelihood. As Clinton supporters donned their “I’m not bitter” buttons, Obama dug in on his “bitter” assertion, stirring up bitterness in the process. “Yes We Can” has become “Yes We Are” as voters, mayors and superdelegates agree that bitterness is alive and well.
Clinging to a life raft, Obama is now quoting some nice old lady who told him on the trail this week that while he may have misspoken, he didn’t lie. No, Obama doesn’t lie, but he does omit. In watching him navigate through two disastrous political controversies, first the videotaped rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and then the shock of “bitter” and “cling,” it is clear there are certain things Obama, understandably, will not say. Someone who is white or black, elite or common, rich or poor, immigrant or native, perhaps could say them, but it is harder to say them when you are all those things.
When forced to respond to questions about Wright’s incendiary statements, Obama chose bravely to address race, laying bare its complexities and the entrenched resentments on both sides of the white and black divide. What he never said was that he chose a home in the black community of Trinity United Church because he desperately needed one. First he needed to belong, then he needed a base to run for office.
When he was asked by his elite, probably mostly white supporters in Pacific Heights why he wasn’t faring so well in Pennsylvania, Obama insisted the reasons are misunderstood. While “everybody just ascribes it to ‘white-working class don’t wanna work — don’t wanna vote for the black guy,’ ” he said it has actually resulted from people feeling betrayed by government and said “our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives.”
Obama didn’t plainly tell people in that room what they all knew to be true: that for myriad reasons there are certain people who aren’t going to vote for him because he is black.
Lacking a distinct identity among a place or a people, Obama isn’t just another potential president like those before him we have attempted to understand. Metaphorically homeless, he journeys in colorful, different and lonely boots that we who judge him will never wear. He doesn’t lie, but the truth he tells won’t always come the way we expect it, in black or white.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.