While his audience may have been 1,200 or so suited-and-tied journalists visiting Washington for an annual Associated Press luncheon, Sen. Barack Obama's remarks Monday were clearly not aimed at the slew of reporters in attendance but were meant to be passed on to those he may have offended after positing that some small-town voters were "bitter" over economic circumstances and clung to guns and religion as a result when they voted.
On Monday afternoon, Obama discussed all of the above, even using the word bitter several times in his 13-minute speech, trying to twist the term on its head.
"People may be bitter about their leaders and the state of our politics, but beneath that, they are hopeful about what's possible in America," Obama said. "That's why they leave their homes...and travel—sometimes for miles, sometimes in the bitter cold—to attend a rally or a town hall meeting held by Senator Clinton, or Senator McCain, or myself. "
Obama took the opportunity to again offer regret in front of members of the media and smooth over the controversy that has exploded since Friday. He tried to put the issue to rest several times over the weekend and earlier Monday at a stop in Pittsburgh but not without continued flak from both Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.
At the luncheon, Obama shot back hard.
"Now, Senator McCain and the Republicans in Washington are already looking ahead to the fall and have decided that they plan on using these comments to argue that I'm out of touch with what's going on in the lives of working Americans," Obama said.
"I don't blame them for this—that's the nature of our political culture, and if I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush's failures, I'd be looking for something else to talk about, too," he continued.
McCain had appeared at the same venue earlier Monday and used his time mostly to talk about his open relationship with the press and why he preferred to give as much "straight talk" as possible, though he did briefly mention Obama's comments on the "psychology and political mind-set of Americans living in small towns." He told the audience that faith had given generations of Americans purpose and meaning. And also that hunting contributed to their enjoyment of life. When asked if he felt Obama was an elitist, McCain backed down. "Oh, I don't know...I think those comments are elitist."
Obama also—but with more restraint—was critical of Clinton for calling the comments elitist. Clinton again brought up Obama's gaffe when she addressed the Alliance for American Manufacturing this afternoon in Pittsburgh. "I believe that people don't cling to religion; they value their faith," Clinton told the group. "You don't cling to guns; you enjoy hunting or collecting or sport shooting. I don't think he really gets it that people are looking for a president who stands up for you and not looks down on you." This was the same group Obama had addressed earlier in the morning.
"I'm sure that Senator Clinton feels like she's doing me a great favor because she's been deploying most of the arguments the Republican Party will be using against me in November—and so it's toughening me up," Obama said.
Obama was asked by Associated Press Chairman Dean Singleton if it was possible for a Democrat to talk about guns, God, and immigration without getting in trouble. Obama said yes and tried to carefully piece together the two sides of the gun and abortion debates. In talking about guns, he used Illinois's geography to illustrate his point. In southern Illinois, you have to understand the tradition of hunting as being a part of people's lives, Obama explained. "What's also true is that in Chicago so far this year, there have been 22 Chicago public-school children that have been gunned down—so we keep on talking past each other on that issue."
The AP chairman didn't have enough time for Obama to further expand his comments on the "bitter" debate and instead accidentally called Osama bin Laden "Obama bin Laden" when questioning the candidate as to whether or not he would keep troops in Afghanistan.