The Bitter Truth

Some twenty years ago, back when I was living in the Ocean State, I was going through a rough patch, of sorts, and so sought the counsel of a kind therapist (who would later inspire me to pursue a career as a clinical social worker) named Daisy. One day, while at my dead-end job as a proofreader, I found myself experiencing a vague yet overwhelming sense of distress. I called Daisy and, in the course of my frantically explaining the circumstances and her deftly inquiring about such, she took a stab at what I was feeling. “It sounds like you’re anxious,” she said. With that short sentence, the fog in my head began to clear, and I recognized the previously unfamiliar landscape over which I had been scrambling. I was anxious. By naming this emotion, Daisy provided me with the insight and validation I needed to navigate through this rocky terrain. It was a powerful moment, and I am grateful to Daisy for the wisdom and courage of her words.

It does take a certain courage to name what people are feeling. Not everyone is ready, willing, or able to look into that mirror and see those emotions reflected back. Denial, anger, or other defensiveness is not unusual. Consider the reaction to a recent comment made by Senator Barack Obama, as reported in the New York Times:

Opponents Call Obama ‘Out of Touch’

As Senator Barack Obama sought to broaden his appeal to voters in southern Indiana on Friday, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain separately criticized him as being out of touch with the middle class, seizing on a remark Mr. Obama made at a California fund-raiser about “bitter� Americans.

At the fund-raiser in San Francisco last Sunday, Mr. Obama outlined challenges facing his presidential candidacy in the coming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana, particularly persuading white working-class voters who, he said, fell through the cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,� Mr. Obama said, according to a transcript on the Huffington Post Web site, which on Friday published the comments.

The remarks touched off a torrent of criticism from Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain and Republican activists and party officials, all accusing Mr. Obama of elitism and belittling the working class. Mr. Obama forcefully rejected those charges when he arrived at a rally here on Friday evening, drawing a standing ovation in a crowded gymnasium when he painted both of his rivals as entrenched Washington insiders.

“No, I’m in touch,� Mr. Obama said. “I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania, I know what’s going on in Indiana, I know what’s going on in Illinois. People are fed up, they’re angry, they’re frustrated, they’re bitter and they want to see a change in Washington. That’s why I’m running for president of the United States of America.�

With 10 contests remaining in the Democratic presidential primary, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are engaged in a vigorous dispute over which candidate could be the party’s strongest nominee against Mr. McCain.

In Pennsylvania on Friday, Mrs. Clinton was first to seize upon the comment Mr. Obama made at the California fund-raiser. The Democrats are embroiled in a vigorous battle for the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

“It’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter; well, that’s not my experience,� Mrs. Clinton told an audience at Drexel University. “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them; they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.�

After her remarks, aides to Mrs. Clinton issued several statements criticizing Mr. Obama, including ones that contained criticism from Republicans. Soon, the McCain campaign also weighed in with criticism of Mr. Obama’s remarks at the California fund-raiser.

“It shows an elitism and condescension toward hard-working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking,� said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. “It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.� [full text]

Even considering the dirty nature of politics, it is hard to imagine how Senator Obama’s words could be so misconstrued and distorted. Whether McCain or Clinton like it or not, people have gotten bitter as a result of the politics and policies of the last several years. People have responded negatively. Not everybody, but certainly a great many. Given the terrible state of affairs in this country—the foolish and costly war in Iraq, the mortgage crisis, the spike in fuel prices (and everything else), the steady leak of American jobs to foreign countries, the broadening chasm between the uber-rich and everyone else, the erosion of civil liberties, etc.—there is ample reason to feel bitter. And to name this feeling is neither elitist nor condescending. It is a courageous attempt to provide the American people with the insight and validation needed to recognize the landscape in which we presently find ourselves and navigate to less rocky terrain. I appreciate Mr. Obama’s efforts in this regard, just as I appreciated Daisy’s nearly two decades earlier.

The irony of this little political brouhaha is that, by accusing Barack Obama of being “out of touch” with the American people, Hillary Clinton and John McCain are showing themselves to be sadly out of touch. For all their supposed experience, they can not or will not see the hardships and hard feelings that have settled like fog in the valleys and streets of this nation. They would rather avert their eyes from the landscape than confront the bitter truth. That is not what we need in a President.

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12 thoughts on “The Bitter Truth

  1. David, You are flipping brilliant. Have I ever told you that?

    Seriously, this is a great piece. I like how you frame the issue of naming feelings in such an honest personal anecdote and give Obama the credit he deserves for listening and acknowledging the depth of despair that many people are feeling.

  2. I agree, David. Perhaps the most insidious and pernicious of St Ronnie Reagan’s legacies is the happy talk that politicians feel is necessary. Any attempt to face an unpleasant truth is scorned as “negative.”

    Well, sometimes being negative is simply being realistic. And, since this is a therapy-based website, perhaps the old cliche of “recognizing the problem as the first step to addressing it” is what Obama is offering and why he has appeal.

  3. thank you, david. i admire the way barack obama has not caved at the right wing personal attacks on him every time he says something challenging. he goes on to explain and stand by his words.

  4. Brilliant! I thought I was going crazy. I kept thinking, “Can’t these people read? They’ve misconstrued his observations.” Then I went to LexisNexis to read his remarks to see what he really said. In light of this, Hillary remarks seem to me to be a perfect illustration of demagoguery.

  5. The Bitter Truth…

    It does take a certain courage to name what people are thinking and feeling. Barack Obama touched a nerve with his honest statement that many Americans feel shut out of the process and bitter about the state of our country. Naming the problem is the fi…

  6. Outstanding analysis, David. You should introduce yourself on video, read it, and then publish it on U-Tube. Call a friend with a camcorder and do it now, while the issue is fresh.

  7. I’m with you, David. Excellent critique.

    McCain and Clinton are trying to re-establish the unfortunate political tactic of turning off voters, except for the rabid few they can get to the polls. Obama’s appeal has been broader than anything seen in 40 years, and that scares the “establishment.”

    Thus, they will do anything, say anything, allege anything to try and stop what should be seen as an overwhelmingly positive development.

  8. People complain that politicans don’t “talk real” and tell them the truth. When one finally does, people complain. Go figure.

    This, too, shall pass. Seems when Obama talks about something that historically no one wants to talk about, there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth for a day or so, until the public starts to wrap their collective head around it and says, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. How true.”

  9. David-
    you verbalized my exact thought as I read the editorial up above. It is precisely that people, of most classes but especially the working/lower middle class, are so beaten down these days. It’s disheartening. It creates all sorts of anxieties that an army of Daisy’s would be hard pressed to contain (with all due respect to Daisy).
    Thank you for your understanding.

  10. David-
    you verbalized my exact thought as I read the editorial up above. It is precisely that people, of most classes but especially the working/lower middle class, are so beaten down these days. It’s disheartening. It creates all sorts of anxieties that an army of Daisy’s would be hard pressed to contain (with all due respect to Daisy).
    Thank you for your understanding.

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