In 2016, the American political landscape has been transformed. Few saw it coming. But did President Obama? A look back at one of the most notorious moments of his 2008 campaign, when then-candidate Obama was recorded giving his evaluation of voters in middle Pennsylvania to donors in San Francisco, suggests he did:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This speech is usually remembered for a single remark—often summed up in shorthand as the “bitter clingers” moment—that provided an early, candid example of Obama’s estrangement from Jacksonian middle America. But read in context, it’s more than that—and kind of stunning. There are few Trump supporters who would disagree with Obama’s first paragraph; there are few Trump opponents who wouldn’t call the second prescient. But while this kind of analysis now seems common, at the time it was not.
In 2008, few pundits perceived the deep, structural economic and social distress afflicting the white working class. Almost no one at the time in the GOP saw the chasm that was opening between the Jacksonians and the establishment of the party—that, as Obama noted, Bush would be lumped in wholesale with Clinton as an example of failed establishment politicians. And meanwhile, the Clintonite wing of the Democrats still assumed that blue collar whites were an important part of the Democratic base. (The audio leaked within a few days of Clinton taking a shot and a beer on camera in Indiana, a moment emblematic of her attempt to shape herself in that primary as the champion of the party’s white working class voters.)
But while Obama’s intellectual analysis and political instincts were first-rate, his ability to understand the motivations of others and to formulate policy fixes for major problems would prove lacking.
Lurking in the background of Obama’s words was What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank’s 2004 warning that middle America was voting contrary to its economic interests. In the rest of his speech (see the transcript at the bottom of this article), Obama casts his goal as showing the middle Pennsylvanians some progress is possible through government, so that they can believe it will help them again. The assumption, latent in the clinger metaphor, is that attachment to Evangelical religion and to the Second Amendment are misguided reflections of economic distress, rather than genuinely held beliefs. If you give them jobs and/or more effective government assistance, they’ll relax the death grip on their Bibles and rifles.
Even on the narrow economic terms he had evoked, Obama’s record has been mixed at best. If candidate Obama was unusually insightful in seeing that the economic problems of middle America went deeper than the Great Recession, President Obama’s recovery measures largely did not reflect this. The stimulus, for instance, disproportionately went to already-affluent areas of the country, transforming the quality of life in, for instance, Washington, D.C., while leaving middle Pennsylvania on the same track to nowhere. And the policy solutions the President did offer the middle class sometimes made things worse. Obamacare, for example, has now saddled them with ever-mounting premiums; in Pennsylvania, these will rise by an average of 33 percent (and some by as much as 55 percent) this year alone. Obama diagnosed a critical emergency in the heartlands, but his response, attention, and care were never really commensurate. The same communities Obama pitied for falling through the Clinton and Bush administrations would continue to fall through the Obama years as well, and he became one more leader who, in his own prescient words, “said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.”
And that’s not all. As time went on, the antipathy that led Obama to make the bitter-clingers comment behind closed doors would spill out into a public feud between the President and the Jacksonians. This antipathy goes both ways: birtherism and charges that Obama was a Muslim reverberated widely through Jacksonian America. But if there’s a definition of punching down, surely it’s the President of the United States beating up on a bunch of people he’s identified as desperate losers.
On issues from refugees to guns, the President often actively exacerbated the country’s polarization political gain. In this, he was both influenced by and leading a broader trend on the left. During the Obama years, Progressives had the upper hand over centrist Democrats—and by 2016, as Walter Russell Mead wrote, “Virtually everything about progressive politics today is about liquidating the Jacksonian influence in American life.”
Barack Obama is by no means the only one who has failed the Jacksonians. The GOP, it’s become clear, failed for far too long to even recognize the pain of its own base. It failed to see the depth of troubles of middle America, failed to address them, failed even in the basic political task of realizing that a substantial plurality of the party had different needs and priorities than the elites. Last, but by no means least, come Trump and his enablers, faux populists who exploit rage, feed alienation and, in the end, leave Jacksonian America more bitter and more isolated than it was before the Orange One jumped onstage.
Still, that a President who had the foresight to see much of this coming before anyone else couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do more to ameliorate it tells us something about the limits of politics, or at least of blue model politics, these days. President Obama saw an economic burden falling on much of America, understood how that pain was distorting our politics, and his best efforts fell short of addressing the problem. It’s just possible that the Jacksonian suspicion of liberal politicians and progressive slogans is rooted in true rather than false consciousness: that one reason they despise eloquent, well credentialed liberals is that they know that the ideas the liberals propound won’t solve the problems Jacksonians face.
The danger now may be that if the Democrats win the election, they’ll look at what happened and decide that this all worked smashingly. Baiting the Jacksonians causes them to embrace (or, some would say, reveal) unrestrained nativism. This repels moderates, splits the GOP, and offers Democrats the inside track to victory even with a bad candidate and a bad cycle (third term in a row). The nativist faction turns out to be both inchoate and prone to flights of fantasy and wishcasting, neither of which help it advocate for itself politically on the national stage. Meanwhile, with each election that goes by, demographics continue to dilute Jacksonian influence in American politics. Why not lather, rinse and repeat? Don’t these people believe evil, backward things? Maybe the clingers deserve what they are getting; certainly, they stand in the way of progress.
That’s one way to read the 2016 campaign, but progressives should not be too smug. Donald Trump was a terrible candidate: vain, verbose, ignorant, rude and defensive. He was surrounded by second-raters, some of the most inept strategists in the United States. His grasp of foreign affairs was so minimal, and his willingness to learn was so low, that at times he made Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes Scholar. His flip flops were so numerous, and his history of backing liberal Democratic causes like abortion so well established, that only the truly desperate could believe him. Suppose Jacksonian America, embittered and alienated by four more years under Clinton, finds a smarter champion next time? Suppose the next Donald Trump is well spoken and slick? Suppose instead of uniting minorities and young voters, the next Donald Trump divides them?
Voters seem poised to reject Donald Trump, a flawed candidate with a garbled message. It would be dangerous indeed for liberal America to conclude that this means that the ‘bitter clingers’ can be ignored.