By Perry Bacon Jr.and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 12, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, April 11 -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain sharply criticized Sen. Barack Obama on Friday for saying at a private April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco that small-town voters in economically distressed areas of Pennsylvania are "bitter."
"Well, that's not my experience," Clinton told a crowd of several hundred at Drexel University. "As I travel around Pennsylvania, I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive. . . . They're working hard every day for a better future for themselves and their children. Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them. They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them."
In remarks first reported on the Huffington Post Web site, Obama said, "You go into 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 going to regenerate and they have not," he went on. "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."
Obama's comments came at the end of a lengthy answer in which he rejected the notion that voters were passing him over simply for racial reasons, saying instead that his campaign of hope and change was having difficulty in "places where people feel most cynical about government."
"Everybody just ascribes it to 'white working-class . . . don't want to vote for the black guy,' " Obama said at the fundraiser.
"Here's how it is: In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long. They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism."
Obama then voiced the lines that his opponents have seized upon.
The controversy erupted just as Obama has appeared to gain ground on Clinton in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary April 22. Since losing the Ohio primary on March 4, he has fought to counter questions about whether he can successfully appeal to white working-class voters, with Pennsylvania seen as a critical test.
Obama advisers quickly sent out the full comments from the fundraiser in an effort to show that Obama, far from looking down at people, was entirely sympathetic to their situation and to their distrust of politicians.
The rapid reactions from Clinton and a McCain spokesman suggested that each of Obama's rivals saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between him and working-class voters, who will play instrumental roles in both the primary and general elections in heartland industrial states.
McCain sees working-class voters -- many of them once and possibly still "Reagan Democrats" -- as a critical constituency for his hopes of winning the White House. His advisers say Obama will have trouble locking down that support in the general election because his message has been focused more on changing the system than on delivering results.
"It's a remarkable statement and extremely revealing," McCain adviser Steve Schmidt said in a statement. "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking, it is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."
But before a raucous crowd in Terre Haute, Ind., Friday night, Obama not only repeated many of the same lines, he expanded on them.
"When I go around and talk to people, there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness. And what's worse is when people are expressing their anger, and politicians try to say, 'What are you angry about?' "
"Of course they're bitter. Of course they're frustrated. You would be, too -- in fact, many of you are," Obama said.
He also addressed the same social hot-button issues that Clinton and McCain pointed to as evidence of elitism. "And so people don't vote on economic issues, because they don't expect anybody's going to help them. People are voting on issues like guns, are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. They take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and the things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington."
Obama also returned fire on both his critics. "Here's what's rich: Senator Clinton says, 'I don't think people are bitter in Pennsylvania. I think Barack's being condescending.' John McCain says, 'He's obviously out of touch with people.' Out of touch? John McCain, it took him three tries to figure out the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he's saying I'm out of touch? Senator Clinton voted for a credit-card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt -- after taking money from the financial services companies -- and she says I'm out of touch?
"No, I'm in touch. I know exactly what's going on. . . . People are fed up. They're angry and they're frustrated and they're bitter, and they want to see a change in Washington."
Staff writers Alec MacGillis in Washington and Dan Balz in Chicago contributed to this report. Murray, traveling with the Obama campaign, reported from Indiana.