Sen. Barack Obama said yesterday that the flap over his characterization of small town voters as "bitter" represented a distraction not just from his campaign message but also from Democratic efforts to overcome stereotypes that Republicans have exploited for decades.
"What I do regret is that in one quick statement that wasn't phrased properly I detracted from what I think has to be a genuine effort on the part of Democrats to speak to constituencies we haven't always reached out to," Mr. Obama said during a wide-ranging interview with the Post-Gazette editorial board.
With just over a week to go before the Pennsylvania primary, his opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has attacked Mr. Obama unrelentingly over his remarks that some small town residents were "bitter,'' and therefore "cling'' to religion and guns while voting against their own economic interests.
While recent polling in Pennsylvania has been all over the map, some recent surveys suggest the attacks have had limited success. The Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday showed Mrs. Clinton leading her rival by six points, a margin identical to their last survey a week ago.
Those findings could be taken two ways. On the one hand, the recent controversy hadn't weakened Mr. Obama's Quinnipiac numbers. But by the same token, the survey could be seen as evidence that he had stalled in closing the gap that Mrs. Clinton has enjoyed throughout this race.
A new poll by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, however, showed Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Obama by just five points, 46 percent to 41 percent, a sharp drop in the double-digit margin that the New York senator held in the previous Times/Bloomberg survey.
While repeating that the words had been poorly phrased, Mr. Obama continued to defend the substance of his remarks in his meeting with the editorial board.
"The basic proposition, what I was trying to say is something I deeply believe, which is that people feel abandoned economically, they don't feel that Washington pays any attention to them. They have heard a lot of empty promises over the last two to three decades ... they're very cynical about the possibility of change.
"They then rely on those things that they can count on. They rely on faith, just like I rely on faith when times are rocky for me. They rely on traditions, like hunting that's been passed on through generation to generation to generation.
The following audio excerpts of Sen. Barack Obama were recorded today during his appearance before the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board.
- Pennsylvania Democratic primary
- Support for Israel
- Bipartisan cooperation
- Business and the economy
- Trade policies
- Campaign ethics
- Personal appeal
- Falling dollar
- Supreme Court
- Patriotism and a flag pin
"When people are angry and frustrated they are also subject to being divided, and politicians will exploit those instincts about so-called wedge issues," he added, contending that such tactics had been part of the Republican recipe for success in the post-Reagan era.
"Karl Rove explicitly targets those issues and made it an entire campaign strategy over two elections,'' he said, referring to President Bush's long-time political adviser.
As he spoke, the Illinois senator wore an American flag pin in his lapel, something that he has not made a habit of recently. It was an omission that Internet accusers had seized on to raise questions about his patriotism.
The candidate explained that he had received the pin just hours earlier from a disabled Vietnam-era veteran at a campaign event in Washington, Pa.
"This notion that somehow I was refusing to wear flag pins was just not accurate,'' Mr. Obama said of the blog-borne criticisms on the issue. "I wore one right after 9/11, and at some point stopped wearing it as I guess a lot of people did, and a reporter asked me about it. All I said was I haven't been wearing one. I do think that after 9/11 I saw a lot of people who were wearing flag pins but voting in ways that I thought didn't always speak to what I think our patriotism requires."
Robert Gibes, a press aide traveling with the senator, said that the gift of the flag pin hadn't been expected and had nothing to do with the timing of the small town values imbroglio.
"This wasn't some kind of statement I was making," Mr. Obama said. "A disabled veteran who has fought for his country asks you to wear one, that's something I'm happy to do." Pointing to his wrist, he added, "It's the same reason I wear this bracelet that a mother gave me after a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her 20-year-old was killed in a roadside bombing so I haven't taken it off since.''
Mr. Obama insisted that far from having an "elitist'' attitude toward people of faith, an accusation he has faced since his remarks were first repeated, he has been an outspoken voice urging religious outreach among Democrats.
While regretting GOP successes in pressing wedge issues against his party, Mr. Obama said that Democrats themselves had sometimes made themselves vulnerable to such tactics in the past.
"Democrats spent a lot of time on issues that I think pushed away a lot of potential voters,'' he said. "We spent a lot of time on identity politics; we spent a lot of time on talking about rights but not responsibility. I think we spent a lot of time focusing on the reason for crime instead of actually trying to solve the problem. ... Part of our job in this election is to get past some of those arguments we had in the '60s.''
Extending a salute across his current battle lines, Mr. Obama said that former President Bill Clinton "actually deserves some credit for having corrected some of those excesses.''
"The other part of it was that Democrats lost touch with the economic realities of a lot of people,'' he added. "We started being financed by the same lobbyists and the same special interests as the Republicans were sometimes, and as a consequence, you started seeing policies that ... from the perspective of a lot of working Americans, didn't seem all that different.''
On other issues during his conversation with the Post-Gazette editors, Mr. Obama defended his record on Israel, said the fall of the dollar signaled long-term challenges for the economy, and said that if he were elected, the choice of schools for his young daughters would be a personal decision.
"Let's be clear, there has been a really systematic effort to suggest that I'm not sufficiently pro-Israel,'' he said. "The fact that my middle name is Hussein, I'm sure, does not help in that regard ... Again some of this dates back to the '60s between the African-American and the Jewish community as a consequence of [Louis] Farrakhan. There was flap about some of Jesse Jackson's statements during his presidential race, so I inherit all this baggage."
While repeating an earlier statement that he disagreed with former President Jimmy Carter's decision to meet with representatives of the Palestinian group Hamas during his current trip to the Middle East, Mr. Obama said, "The fact is, though, that no one's been a more stalwart ally of Israel.... My support of Israel is as strong as Sen. Clinton or [Sen. John] McCain.
"Groups like AIPAC [the American Israel Political Action Committee] would confirm that.''
The day after he and Mrs. Clinton competed to assure the Alliance for American Manufacturing that they would take tougher stands on trade, Mr. Obama said, "I believe in trade, ... but if the only beneficiaries of trade are corporate bottom lines and a lot of workers are losing their jobs, there's going to be a lot of anti-trade sentiment out there.''
Mr. Obama said that the fall of the dollar and the potential erosion of its status as the world's reserve currency, would be a challenge for the next administration.
"There is something the president can do about it and that is getting our economic fundamentals right,'' he said, calling for cutting the deficit and moving toward energy independence.
"Ending the war in Iraq is part of that step toward fiscal responsibility,'' he said. "We've got to get a handle on our entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid in particular.
"Part of the problem with the dollar right now is that people are looking at the long term, and they think China is making better economic decisions on a lot of fronts.''
In response to another question, Mr. Obama said that he had his wife had not made any decision on where they would educate their grade-school-age daughters.
"Michelle and I will not make that decision based on making a public statement, but on what's best for them,'' he said. "There are some good schools in Washington D.C. Whether they're right for my daughters, we'll decide as parents, not as president and first lady.''
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562. Correction/Clarification: (Published April 16, 2008) An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that yesterday's Quinnipiac University poll gave Sen. Hillary Clinton an eight-point lead over Sen. Barack Obama in Pennsylvania. The margin was six points. First Published April 16, 2008 4:00 AM