April 14th, 2008
08:02 PM ET

On Bitterness and Business

From The Daily Yonder:

Senator Obama's depiction of rural Americans at a gathering of urbanites set off a new cluster of campaign brushfires. Did the message about rural economies burn up along the way?

In the Kentucky legislature there’s an insider’s rule for those who want to stay elected: Don’t make your Frankfort speech back home, or your back-home speech in Frankfort. That is to say, the speech you make when you are out campaigning in small coal field towns or in the tobacco patch about how we are not getting our fair share and about how the city people in Lexington and Louisville get all the advantages isn’t the speech you make at the state capitol. In those halls, a more sophisticated discourse about restraint and responsibility wins over your colleagues - and in the end gets you the bacon you need to bring home.


Barack Obama thought he was making his out-of-town speech to the right people, but the folks back home on the hustings got wind of it, too.

He was explaining his difficulty winning over small town voters in the East to a gathering of well-heeled donors in suburban Marin County, California, last Sunday, and talked himself into a deep political hole.

He began by pointing out what national politicians seldom mention: the continuing and systemic disappearance of rural economies. Reporter Mayhill Fowler quoted Senator Obama in Huffington Post: "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.”

What he said next was not what he would have wanted to say to people back home in Indiana or Pennsylvania. “And it's not surprising then 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."

There may be a measure of truth in all stereotypes. That is why they are so dangerous to use. Who wants to be on the receiving end? Who wants to be labeled? Even in the context of sharing polling data that correlates professed values with recurring disappointments, who wants to be summed up and explained away for the benefit of Marin County donors? My bet is that the voters across the Bay in inner-city Oakland would enjoy the experience no more than those in small-town Pennsylvania.

As this political tempest runs its course, the challenge is to see if the country can get beyond a debate about whether small town voters are bitter. (If you readers are keeping score at home, Clinton and McCain say rural people aren’t bitter. And Obama now says he should have put his point another way.) The real challenge is to follow up on Senator Obama’s earlier candid moment. Rural life is threatened by economic policy that perpetually fails rural communities.

There are sixty million of us in rural America. The poverty rates are substantially higher, as are rates of unemployment, substance abuse, diagnosed clinical depression, and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way we have come to address these specific issues is that every four years presidential candidates come to Iowa and take a stand on ethanol subsidies. As if it mattered. That so many small-town voters are not embittered by a national political process that ignores them may be a more unflattering testament than the annotated list of Senator Obama’s stereotypes.

Sadly, what is missing from the political debate are speeches about how robust rural economies lift national prospects, fill the coffers, expand opportunities. And in a time when the world is struggling to re-imagine how it will feed, fuel, and heal a damaged planet, a full-throated oratory on where rural fits in may find surprisingly attentive audiences both back home and in parlors beyond.

-Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

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Filed under: Raw Politics
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. lewis

    I am from a small rural town in tennessee, and we do cling to our religion. We pray for those who are in need and we pray for our love ones that are over seas in war. Crime is coming into our small town. So we cling to our guns to defend or protect my home and loved ones but what is the difference in being bitter and being angry. My points is Join McCain said the Americans people are angry with Bush in the economy and over look the fact that we are bitter and angry over the war. Senator Clinton said she was with Bush administration over the war and the economy. So being bitter or angry are they not the same. There are no jobs in rural areas or in communities. We are bitter over gas and food. The supporters in San Francisco ask Senator Obama about small town and rural communities he told them what is going on.

    April 15, 2008 at 3:35 pm |
  2. Don C. Bower

    This is the 1st. election I have followed sence the early 70's.It is nothing but a joke.Why are so many people upset about his comments about working class being bitter,and hold on to our religion.It's the truth,i have my own beliefs,and I'm 1 of those that is bitter about our goverment.Our goverment is selling our country piece by piece.They would prefer helping another countries poor before they help us.I believe non of the canidents have a clue how bad it is,but Sen. Obama is on the right track.THe 1 who wins the election tells the better lies. Don C. Bower,Gulf Breeze,Fl.

    April 15, 2008 at 1:39 pm |
  3. shon

    Senator Obama’s depiction of rural Americans is true. The jobs in these areas are disappearing because of technology and cheap foreign labor. Most of the people in these towns all work for the same major company. When the company has to close its doors the people in the community should be “bitter” about their lively hood being taking away. In the rural are most people do own guns. But the media has not much say about Bill Clinton contradicting his wife. I guess according to him, if she is not alert at 11 p.m. she would not be alert enough to answer the 3 a.m. call either. How can we trust Hillary Clinton when she is trying so hard to sell herself as "common folk"? And just looks quit silly drinking beer and taking shots

    April 15, 2008 at 12:19 pm |
  4. norb

    Not only are people bitter and frustrated. They're angry as well. Just take a hard look at the blogs. They have every right to be as well. Gas up at an all time high. Forclosures up at an all time high. People getting killed everyday in Iraq. The list just goes on an on. The news everday is just so depressing. More jobs lost, we're in a recession etc. People are angry at the Bush administration and are taking their frustrations out on the candidates. I don't look at Obama's remarks as elitist. He's just tellling it like it is.

    April 15, 2008 at 12:14 pm |
  5. D. Johnson

    Hello People,

    What is the problem? Come on, I'm sure that all of us know exactly what Obama meant. This economy is awful. People are tired and feed up with what is going on. There are people who are BITTER and feel neglected and forgotten by our elected government officials. This outcry against Obama is just a facade. The real reason some people will not vote for him, is not because of what he said, but because of the color of his skin. People need to stop hiding behind words and just be straight and upfront. There are some individuals that would rather bite off their noses to spite their face rather than vote for a black man. It doesn't matter what that black man brings to the table. It doesn't matter if he is the best qualified candidate to pull this great country of ours out of this mess it is currently in. The bottom line is that none of that matters to these individuals. The only thing that matters is that he is a black man vying for the highest office in the country and that doesn’t sit to well. Why do we try to put a cover on the truth? While we have made great strides in this country, we still have bigger ones to make. Racism is not dead, it is alive and kicking. It use to be more overt. Black people are victims of the pass. Slavery and oppression was not a myth. This is our history as a country. People need to just be real and stop trying to find cover and words to shade their true feelings.

    April 15, 2008 at 12:05 pm |
  6. Bruce Kline

    As a interested Canadian, I get so frustrated when you people put so much emphasis on the smallest things while the big picture and what is really important is ignored. IE Anna Nicole Smith dominated your networks while Rome was burning. I must say when I was growing up, I really loved America...so much so that I learned your national anthem and sang it quite often....the only point I really want to make here is that if you factor out the oil and gas, Canada is probably the only country that you have a large trade surplus with...not counting the thousands of shoppers that cross into your country every day to spend our hard earned money...now tell me, why would Senator Obama want to change that? Please look at the whole picture peoples....we need you to be strong!

    April 15, 2008 at 11:17 am |
  7. Pat M Canada

    The real tragedy concerning this election is this –
    Americans have three choices and not one of the three candidates are
    what I would assess as being the Best Choice for President.

    None have the experience required as a Leader. And just like the last President they will have to learn as they go or hope they can entice experienced politicians to join their Administration and make the tuff decisions.

    Obama and Clinton are making a mockery of the Presidency. And John McClaim has destroyed any chance he MAY HAVE HAD by fostering a seven year old war that should have never happened and has put America on the brink of economic disaster.

    Hats off to all ! Great Job ! (sarcasm)

    April 15, 2008 at 9:45 am |
  8. Angel

    Obama's arrogance is beginning to show.

    April 14, 2008 at 11:50 pm |
  9. jan

    Rural communities are no worse off than Obama's inner-city Chicago. In fact, they are better off being poor because they have values and beliefs that keep them from becoming bitter as he rambled on about to big city colleagues. He really needs to educate himself on the whole country if he applies for this job in the future–he is far from ready at present. The whole country does not revolve around Barrack Obama and his Harvard cronies-they are actually a very small segment of the population. Not everyone wants to belong to a huge, wealthy church and listen to anti-American sentiment. Some of us small-towners are happy with a college degree and a simple life. Or even high school diploma and a job. You were allowed to choose your path, Barrack, because of people like the Clintons-let the rest of us alone to live our "rural" lives.

    April 14, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  10. chris

    Obama was merely explaining why so many rural and working class voters have voted against their economic interests by voting republican over the past eight years. The republicans have preyed upon the economic issues experienced by these voters by putting forth the message that the democrats will take their guns and send the country into moral decline. No other group has so obviously voted for economic policies which do not match up with what would benefit them the most.

    April 14, 2008 at 10:13 pm |
  11. martha

    I understand what Obama was saying, about people being bitter. Maine has many small towns that have lost jobs. They are slowly dying. People with no other hope do cling to their faith. I would like to know why when one candidate appears to be doing well and gaining ground on the other, the media feels the need to drag them down. I am a republican, who has liked Obama from the start. I would like to see him win, because I really believe he can make some of the changes that are so desperately needed in this country. Hillary is the same old, same old Washington politics. Nothing will change!!!

    April 14, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  12. Josie

    So Obama explained why he thinks those of us in dying steel and coal towns are "bitter". So, he said we slipped through the cracks, and it's true, because somebody, somewhere, decided to favor foreign exports and low sulphur coal. That doesn't make hard working humans bitter, it makes them cynical, because every day, these same people get to turn on the evening news and watch news about a world that we helped build, but no longer wants us back. It's like that saying: "God give me the power to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things i can't, and the wisdom the know the difference." Well, if we're not exactly serene about the status quo, its because for hundreds of thousands of blue-collar, "salt of the earth" Americans, we do indeed, have that wisdom. Does Obama?

    April 14, 2008 at 8:53 pm |
  13. Jo Ann

    Thank you for sharing this thoughtful commentary by Dee Davis with us. For the record I did hear and read Senator Obama’s comments in context.

    I always believed that if you can’t say something to someone’s face don’t say it.

    How could Obama have thought that he was making his speech to the right people? If he felt this way about the working class people of PA why didn’t he discuss this with them when he was there? What did he expect to accomplish by discussing them in such a way to his supporters in San Francisco.

    I agree that stereotypes are dangerous and I seriously doubt that Obama would have made the same characterization in regards to embittered members of the Black community who seem to cling to the spectre of racism to vent their anger

    Frankly, I am a little suspicious when any of the candidates are doing their “Marie Antoinette” routine with the voters. None of them can really understand the difficulties an average American family experiences on a day-to-day basis just by bowling or drinking beer with them. The only way for them to show their support for these families is to sponsor legislation that will make life better for them.

    In that regard, the candidates should be judged on their past records on these issues not merely on hollow promises for the future.

    Jo Ann
    North Royalton, Ohio

    April 14, 2008 at 8:45 pm |
  14. Marge


    A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status


    The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

    You can be one without believing the other.

    April 14, 2008 at 8:42 pm |
  15. Jim

    You can fool all the people some of the time but you can;t fool them all the time. Obama true colors leek out . Thank goodness it happen in time. The Afro Americans still have a chance to vote for Hillary.

    April 14, 2008 at 8:31 pm |
  16. Justin

    Barack Obama is just trying to have it both ways. Talk "city" to city folk and "country" to country folk... That's his unctuous objective.

    It's really sad that the candidate of "hope" and "change" is the only candidate who keeps on sputtering out stereotypes and supporting divisive figures. Add 'em all up... "Typical white person"... "bitter"..."cling[ing]"...making a "caricature" (of Rev. Wright).

    He also doesn't want his girls to be "punished with a baby." I'm pro-choice, but this comment is so dismissive of the preciousness of life and the tremendously difficult decisions around unwanted pregnancy. It's a slap in the face to all women - who didn't plan to get pregnant - who choose to bring their child to term.

    April 14, 2008 at 8:30 pm |
  17. Kathy - Tennessee

    Rural Tennessee will support Hillary Clinton. If there is any hope of Tn going Democratic in November, she must be the nominee. We've got a lot of Annie Oakleys' here and we are proud of them! We are not just a bunch of hicks here – we have a robust economy in Northeast Tennessee and attract many to do business and retire to this beautiful part of the state. The Democratic green emphasis will appeal to a lot of voters. We failed to elect our native son Gore, I think, because he came across as elitist. Our population has become increasing diverse, but economic issues are foremost here. Neither candidate came here for any length of time, but we endorsed Clinton before the Rev. Wright debacle and now we've been called bitter!

    April 14, 2008 at 8:23 pm |
  18. Patricia

    As a rural Pennsylvanian, I am not upset that Senator Obama referred to me as bitter. I am insulted that he lumped me in with Bible thumping, guntoting, anti immigrant yahoos. I am a snob like him.

    April 14, 2008 at 8:09 pm |