Most liberals who watched Barack Obama’s news conference last Friday were tearing their hair out about his defense of his cautious approach on the Russia controversy and especially his inability to utter one sentence raising even the subtlest hint of doubt about whether the election outcome was legitimate. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg captured it well: “Most of the time, Barack Obama’s near-supernatural calm and dispassion are among his best qualities. Occasionally, as at Friday’s pallid press conference, they are his worst ones.”
I was distressed by that too, as I’d been writing columns urging Obama to speak more forcefully about all that, though I wasn’t especially surprised. Obama wants to believe in a politics that existed for about 30 or 35 years, from circa 1950 to 1980 or so, when people took bipartisanship and respect for norms far more seriously than today, and he’s just not going to cast doubt on a president-elect’s legitimacy. It’s infuriating in this case, but it’s who he is at his core.
So it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me, though, was the implicit whack he took at Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Asked directly whether she lost because of the hacking, he said he’d let the pundits fight that one out, asserted that he found much press coverage of her “troubling,” and delivered this sermonette:
What I've said is that I can maybe give some counsel advice to the Democratic Party. And I think the -- the -- the thing we have to spend the most time on -- because it's the thing we have most control over -- is, how do we make sure that we're showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they're not being heard?
And where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte- sipping, you know, politically correct, out-of-touch folks, we have to be in those communities. And I've seen that, when we are in those communities, it makes a difference. That's how I became president. I became a U.S. Senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving downstate Illinois and going to fish fries and sitting in V.F.W. Halls and talking to farmers.
And I didn't win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class...
He went on for a bit longer. Now right about here I expected him to interrupt himself and say something like: “Now of course I want to make it clear that I am not talking about Secretary Clinton here. She worked hard. She went to these places. I’m just talking about going forward.”
But he did not. Politicians, they generally know what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying, and they know what kind of speculation they’re going to invite by leaving something unsaid. So I thought it was pretty clear he was taking a swipe at her campaign. And I think what he said was unfair to her—and more importantly, while it was true, it was very insufficient as a piece of political advice.
First of all, Clinton did go to those places. Here’s the list of every speech she gave in October. Yes, there are plenty of big cities that she hit more than once. But she appeared in numerous mid- and small-market cities: In Iowa, she went to Dubuque, Sioux City, Waterloo, Ottumwa, Council Bluffs and Indianola. In Ohio, she hit Toledo, Akron, Athens, Steubenville, Youngstown, Canton, Gambier, Delaware, Athens, Grove City and Solon. In Michigan, she went to Saginaw, Flint, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Battle Creek, Taylor and Warren.
She did the same in other swing states. These cities aren’t exactly rural America, but most are regional hubs in red-to-purple areas or exurbs where the swing vote was high. Her campaign strategists may have made numerous mistakes, born of arrogance or whatever. But one thing you can’t blame her for is not showing up. She did. She hit Wisconsin 10 times in October, which would seem to me to fly in the face of the recently congealed conventional wisdom that she could barely even find the state on a map. So that was unfair of Obama, if indeed he meant his words as a knock on her.
But here’s the more important point. The very fact that she did show up in those places and still didn’t carry them by and large, or carry them by enough to win outright, shows that Obama’s advice isn’t enough. Every Democrat goes to fish fries and VFW halls. But it isn’t about just going there. It’s what you say and how you act once you get there.
This is where some Democrats have problems. Let’s write out of this equation the out-and-out-racists and so on and just talk about the winnable portions of the rural and/or white working-class vote. Those people aren’t highly educated, maybe, but they aren’t stupid. They have strong bullshit detectors. They may not be able to name it, but they can smell it when they’re being talked down to or when somebody just doesn’t feel quite comfortable in their presence. They also, like anybody else, need to be able to walk out of a political rally thinking, “I like her, she just said in plain English she’s gonna do X.”
Clinton had that second problem especially. Those post-election word clouds said it all. Trump’s cloud featured words that reflected positions—awful positions, but positions all the same. Clinton’s was dominated by the word “email,” and while a lot of that was the media’s fault, she could have and should have done more to make sure that “jobs” and “economy” appeared in there prominently.
In any case, Clinton is gone. But Obama won’t be. Assuming he doesn’t pull a Dubya and take up painting, he’ll be out there doing things. If he really thinks this is the Democrats’ number one problem, he can do better than cavil about it—he can help solve it by going to those places and selling his party’s program in ways that make sense to those voters.