NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE: For a guy who just four years ago was running his first statewide campaign, Barack Obama has made startlingly few missteps as a presidential candidate. But the moment Obama would most like to take back now, if he could, was the one last April when, speaking to a small gathering of Bay Area contributors, he said that small-town voters in Pennsylvania and other states had grown “bitter” over lost jobs, which caused them to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” That comment, subsequently posted by a blogger for the Huffington Post, undercut one of the central premises of Obama’s campaign, an argument he first floated in his famous 2004 convention address — that he could somehow erode the tired distinctions between red states and blue ones and appeal to disaffected white men who had written off national Democrats as hopelessly elitist. Instead, in the weeks that followed, white working-class primary voters, not only in industrial states like Pennsylvania but also in rural states like Kentucky and West Virginia, rejected his candidacy by wide margins, and he staggered, wounded, toward the nomination.
“That was my biggest boneheaded move,” Obama told me recently. We were sitting across from each other on his plane, the one with the big red, white and blue “O” on the tail, flying some 35,000 feet above Nebraska. “How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.”
Obama was wearing his classic starched white shirt (how many of those shirts does he have, exactly?), along with a tie the color of a robin’s egg. One on one, he has a crisp and effortless conversational style; his answers are thoughtful, but you rarely glimpse the thought process itself, the internal calibrations that every politician is constantly making. The only outward sign that Obama is laboring over his formulations is the way he will often elongate the word “and” for several seconds, a processing hitch that enables him to preview in his own head what he is about to tell you, like one of those five-second delays the networks use so they can bleep out profanity.
“I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, ‘You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,’ ” he continued. “Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that.”
In a few minutes, Obama would arrive in Colorado for a campaign stop, followed by another in Nevada — two critical states that neither of the previous two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, came all that close to winning, largely because of their abject failure to connect with white men, especially lower- and middle-class men in rural and exurban counties. A few weeks earlier, I watched Obama campaign in the coal country of Appalachian Virginia, where no one I talked to could remember ever seeing a Democratic nominee come through town. I asked Obama how he thought he could convey to these voters that he was not, in fact, an anthropological observer of the culture. Four years ago, Kerry, a man who was once actually pretty comfortable holding a semiautomatic weapon, donned his hunting gear and traipsed into the woods of Ohio, trailed by cameras, to shoot some geese. The stunt made him look absurd, like an investment banker at rock-’n’-roll fantasy camp.
“First,” Obama said, “you have to show up. I’ve been to Elko, Nev., now three times.”
“Elko?” I asked twice, straining to hear him over the engine noise.
“E-L-K-O.” He sounded vaguely annoyed, as if I had just confirmed something about the media he had long suspected. “That, by the way, is the reason we got more delegates out of Nevada, even though we lost the popular vote there during the primary. We lost Las Vegas and Clark County, but we won handily in rural Nevada. And a lot of it just had to do with the fact that folks thought: Man, the guy is showing up. He’s set up an office. He’s doing real organizing. He’s talking to people.
“No. 2 is how we talk about issues,” Obama went on. “To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn’t get it — that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary. And that’s why that whole ‘bittergate’ episode was so bitter for me. It was like: Oh, this is exactly what I wanted to avoid. This is what for the last five or six years I’ve been trying to push away from.” MORE