In his historic first run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama did something politicians rarely do — he told the truth.
As he recalled in his memoir “A Promised Land,” Obama said someone at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco asked him why Pennsylvania’s working class “continued to vote against their interests and elect Republicans.” After talking about voters who felt neglected and unheard, he said, “So it’s not surprising then that 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.”
After Huffington Post published the leaked comments, Obama spent days trying to navigate the backlash. Senator John McCain, later the Republican presidential nominee, accused Obama of echoing “liberal elitist” rhetoric. Pundits branded him as estranged from the struggles of real (meaning white) working-class Americans.
Some of the sharpest jabs came from Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s main Democratic opponent. “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them,” she said. Eager to burnish her folksy bona fides, Clinton began talking about growing up in a “churchgoing family” and how her father taught her to shoot a gun as a child.
Obama later called his comments “the biggest mistake of my campaign.” But look for a lie in what he said. You won’t find one.
Nothing Obama said was false. Speaking more like the community organizer he once was than like the president he wanted to be, Obama spoke of decades of white grievance (without referencing race) and its devastating impact on a nation in which millions would rather protect guns as “a God-given right” (which they are not) than protect even its most vulnerable citizens.
With the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, that impact was made manifest again in a state where it’s easier to buy and carry a gun without a permit than to get an abortion, teach the award-winning “1619 Project” in schools, or find gender-affirming health care for trans youth. Today America has more guns than people.
But 14 years ago, many preferred to attack the messenger over educating themselves about the message — especially since the person delivering it was a Black man with a foreign-sounding name whose native-born American citizenship, and therefore his eligibility to be president, was already being questioned by racists like Donald Trump.
In his own presidential bid, Trump exploited and rebranded white grievance into a campaign slogan and a seething right-wing movement. On the day he launched his candidacy in 2015, he excoriated Mexican immigrants, appealed to Second Amendment gun huggers, and told his base that he would restore to their lives the status they believed had been stolen from them.
That sentiment served as the scaffolding for the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection and feeds the so-called great replacement theory, the mendacious idea that white people are being deliberately replaced by immigrants and people of color. It’s been mainstreamed by Tucker Carlson on Fox News and embraced by Republican politicians. It’s also become a violent call to action for white supremacists like the man accused of killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket on May 14.
This is what Obama referenced — the “antipathy toward people not like them.” More people should have heeded what was clearly a warning; now a majority of Trump supporters agree with the inciting tenet of replacement theory.
In a series of tweets after the Uvalde massacre, Obama said, “Michelle and I grieve with the families in Uvalde, who are experiencing pain no one should have to bear. We’re also angry for them. Nearly 10 years after Sandy Hook — and ten days after Buffalo — our country is paralyzed, not by fear, but by a gun lobby and a political party that have shown no willingness to act in any way that might help prevent these tragedies.”
As president, Obama would never again broach the toll of white grievance on this nation. If, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his epilogue to the Obama years, America’s first Black president “walked on ice but never fell,” it was due in part to his hard-learned habit of avoiding the thinnest and most slippery parts of an unforgiving surface.
In his memoir, Obama said of his 2008 comment, “I screwed up and don’t like being misunderstood.” He didn’t screw up and his political opponents perfectly understood him. That’s why they cynically tried to use it against him, to show their winking kinship with white voters wary of a Black man running for president.
Obama’s self-described “gaffe” held up a mirror to white America and revealed what it still struggles to admit. In the scrum of that contentious campaign, his comment was considered an unforced error. Instead, it was prophetic.