Politics & Policy

Barack in Bitterland

Obama, trying to make up ground in Pennsylvania.

McKeesport, Pennsylvania — Photographers take thousands of photos of Barack Obama every time he appears in public.  But on this night, in the Wunderley Gymnasium on the campus of Penn State Greater Allegheny University, the photographers’ attention seems to have been stolen, at least for a while, by a little girl. Beth Shelly, age 6, apparently under the diligent coaching of her parents, is sitting cross-legged on the gym floor clutching two dolls, one black and one white, both sporting Obama stickers.  The image is too much for the press to resist — could there be anything that says “aspirational candidate” better than this? — and little Beth sits virtually motionless for a long time so everyone can get a shot.  

Obama, meanwhile, is late — really late. The rally is scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., but 6:00 comes and goes, and then 6:30, and then 7:00, and then 7:30, and then 7:45, and still no candidate.  The gym is packed, and people are fired up and ready to go, but all they have to work with is…Bob Casey.  To fill the time, Sen. Casey, Obama’s top Pennsylvania supporter, comes out to address the crowd, accompanied by former Sen. Harris Wofford.  They go on, and on, and on.  By the time Casey says, “Another important issue to the people of our state and the people of America,” the crowd is getting pretty antsy.  When Casey tosses to Wofford, to “continue our discussion,” it seems as if no end is in sight. Finally, a little before 8:00, Obama, accompanied by wife Michelle, arrives.  “On behalf of the Obama family, sorry, it was Barack’s fault,” Michelle Obama tells the crowd.  When Obama takes the stage, he apologizes profusely for holding everyone up.  “I am so sorry we’re late,” he tells the crowd.  “I feel terrible.  One of the things we take pride on in this campaign is being on time, or close to on time.”

But Obama doesn’t say why he is late. As it turns out, at the scheduled time of the rally, he was in a television studio in nearby Pittsburgh, taping an election-eve appearance on The Daily Show.  The friendly crowd probably wouldn’t mind if Obama told them the truth, but he doesn’t.

The audience is much different from the one Hillary Clinton drew in this same area a couple of nights ago.  There are a lot more black people here — Clinton’s Saturday evening rally in nearby California, Pennsylvania was nearly all white — and people in the Obama crowd answer two questions quite differently from those with Clinton.

At the Clinton rally in California, and also one across the state in Bethlehem, I asked a lot of people, all of them white, whether they would vote for Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination. More than half of them said no. One man told me he would move to Canada.  At this Obama rally, I ask ten people, most of them black, the flip-side question — If Clinton were the nominee, would you vote for her? Everyone says yes, they would vote for Clinton.  “She’s a Democrat, I’m a Democrat, and I support the party,” a man named Mark tells me. It’s a striking difference from the Clinton crowd.

Then there’s the “bitter” question. Of course everyone here has heard about Obama’s statement that people in places like this are bitter over the loss of jobs in the area, and as a result cling to religion, or guns, or bigotry. People at the Clinton rallies generally took exception to that, or at least thought that Obama drew the wrong conclusion.  With Obama, everyone here pretty much agrees with him.

“I am bitter because of the loss of jobs,” an unemployed man named Dana tells me.  “Right now, it seems like nobody’s fighting for the small communities like McKeesport. I felt like he was speaking for me.”

“It’s the truth, you know what I mean?” a man named Clarence says. “It was just telling the truth.  If you go around McKeesport, you’ll see. There’s nothing here.  Everything’s being torn down.  What do people have to get from here?  Everybody’s on their own, basically.  So it’s either go to drugs, religion — whatever they can do.”

“I thought he could have said it a little better,” a woman named Lois tells me.  “But I understood what he meant, and I agreed with him, because people are angry bitter, disappointed, frustrated — so I absolutely agreed with what he said.”

In the end it appears that, in Pennsylvania at least, if you like Obama, you have no problem with the “bitter” thing, or at most think he might have phrased it a bit more felicitously. If you don’t like Obama, you think it was a grave offense to all Pennsylvanians, and perhaps all Americans.  With few undecideds in this race, that probably won’t move many Democrats one way or the other in Pennsylvania — although the general election will be another issue entirely.

The RealClearPolitics averages of polls show Obama about six points behind Clinton in Pennsylvania.  Here in the southwestern part of the state, that margin is probably a lot larger.  But he has his fans here, and visiting them on the eve of the election might help reduce the size of Clinton’s victory.  Tonight, when Clinton will be in Philadelphia celebrating what she hopes will be a big win, Obama will have moved on to Indiana, campaigning for the May 6 primary there.  And maybe, if no television opportunities beckon, he’ll be on time.

— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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