Maybe being accused of being an “elitist” is a good thing.
After taking hits from Democratic primary foe Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain for suggesting, somewhat clumsily, that Americans who are suffering economically may turn “bitter,” Barack Obama has come back with a speech that goes to the heart of the current crisis.
Speaking on trade policy to the Alliance for American Manufacturing today in Pittsburgh this morning, the Illinois senator said what he has been needing to say for more than a month: He understands that America needs a new approach to trade — an approach that breaks with those of the Bush and Clinton administrations — if this country is going to begin to address its many economic challenges.
And he did it in the context of the current debate about elitism.
“Senator Clinton and Senator McCain are singing from the same hymn book, saying that I’m ‘out of touch’ – an ‘elitist’ – because I said a lot of folks are bitter about their economic circumstances,” Obama explained. “Now it may be that I chose my words badly. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. But when I hear my opponents, both of whom have spent decades in Washington, saying I’m out of touch, it’s time to cut through their rhetoric and look at the reality.”
The rhetoric — especially Clinton’s remake of herself as a populist champion of fair-trade responses that she opposed as the first lady, a senate candidate and a senator — is designed to suggest that Obama is not in tune with workers who have seen their jobs, their industries and their communities devastated by trade policies that favored Wall Street over Main Street.
But Obama is not willing to accept the characterization. And he has challenged it with a speech that — while it certainly will not get parallel coverage — is important as his recent addresses of racial division and foreign policy.
“Senator Clinton and Senator McCain question my respect for the workers of Pennsylvania. Well, let me tell you how I believe you demonstrate your respect. You do it by telling the truth and keeping your word, so folks can know that where you stand today is where you’ll stand tomorrow,” said Obama. “The truth is, trade is here to stay. We live in a global economy. For America’s future to be as bright as our past, we have to compete. We have to win.”