So I leave the country for a couple days and Obama takes the opportunity to implode–how’s that for timing? Actually, I’m not quite sure what everyone is so worked up about, since it is hardly news to those who have followed him that Obama’s “understanding” of other views is an exercise in demonstrating his magnanimity and is not much of an effort to show actual respect to other views. It is the pose of the self-righteous liberal who is so certain of his views that he feels liberated to reach out and touch the benighted gun-toting lepers. This is someone who says, “Obviously, you are all terribly wrong, but I am such a good guy that I am going to indulge you in your false notions out of compassion for your suffering.” The Messiah references have been all wrong–this is Obama as bodhisattva. “You cling to your delusions, but I am here to teach you a path of liberation from all such attachments.” Obviously what he said is condescending and insulting, but he says condescending and insulting things all the time. In his big speech in Philadelphia, he made similar claims, and he has been making this sort of argument for months (don’t scapegoat immigrants–fight the real enemy of evil lobbyists!).
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, here is what I am guessing Obama thought he was doing when he said these things in San Francisco. Obama thinks of himself as a builder of bridges and someone who brings people with opposing ideas to work together. Whether this is true or not is beside the point–that is how he sees himself, and that is how he has presented himself throughout the campaign. For some reason, people have believed him and many have rallied to him to some degree because they believe this. So when he is addressing a fundraiser in San Francisco, he believes it is his purpose to serve as a kind of tribune or perhaps an ambassador from the voters of Pennsylvania to the latte liberals of the Left Coast. He sees it as his role to be the mediator between the left and Middle Americans. The latter’s religion, concern about gun rights, lax border security, illegal immigration and bad trade policy may be incomprehensible to the left except when they are explained in terms of displaced economic grievances: the only reason they can grasp why someone might be concerned about immigration is if it functions as a scapegoat for frustration with tough economic times. If What’s the Matter with Kansas? typifies the views of many liberals about middle- and working-class voters’ interest in cultural issues, Obama is offering such liberals a theory that will make them more sympathetic (obviously, in a condescending, insulting way) to these voters. It allows him to maintain all of the policy positions that will get the donors to open their wallets, while confirming (at least in his own mind) his goodwill and generosity of spirit towards those who hold different views, except that explaining away someone’s concerns is not an expression of goodwill and generosity. Of course, Obama’s blunder here was not just in making a painfully condescending statement, but in assuming the role of the great mediator in the first place. He catches plenty of flack from the left for expressing sympathy for cultural conservatives’ concerns, even though he has absolutely no intention of taking those concerns seriously, and he receives endless criticism whenever he reverts back to standard liberal explanations for the politics of cultural conservatism. This balancing act is difficult enough in a nominating contest that he has, for all intents and purposes, all but won, and it will only become more difficult with time. It seems to me that this is a significant political setback for the general election, and if there is audio or video of this statement it will be used to great effect in the months to come. Update: Obviously, there is audio of the statement, which is how it came to be known in the first place. That was an oversight on my part.
P.S. The most important thing, which I neglected to mention earlier, is that absolutely nothing that Obama proposes to do would alleviate any of the bitterness he sees in the people in Pennsylvania, because he doesn’t actually oppose any of the policies that these voters find so frustrating, but in fact embraces pretty much all of them.