Opinion: Barack Obama tries to turn the page


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‘I’m tired of playing defense all the time,’ Barack Obama said this morning. ‘I want to play some offense.’

It’s a line he has used many times in speaking to labor groups. But it resonated a bit differently today.

Obama has spent the last few days back on his heels, absorbing furious punishment from the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John McCain over his ‘bitter’ remarks in San Francisco.


Today, Obama spoke to about 3,000 union members, gathered in Washington for the Building & Construction Trades Department’s annual legislative meeting. Clinton appears before the group Wednesday.

Obama spent much of his speech focused on labor-friendly issues that elicited extended applause: opposing ‘right-to-work’ laws, encouraging union organization and expressing skepticism about global trade deals.

But eventually he addressed the tempest of the moment, his statements regarding small-town America. In Obama’s most recent equation, road-tested Monday night in Pennsylvania, ‘bitter’ now means ‘angry,’ which when coupled with ‘hope’ equals ‘Obama.’

‘I said people were bitter,’ Obama said. ‘People seemed to misunderstand. Yes, people are angry. If you’ve been filling up your gas tank, you’re angry.

‘You’ve got to feel some frustration. You’ve got to feel some anger,’ he said, ‘when you get the sense that the ...

American way of life for so many people is slipping away.’

But, he said, that was ‘not a reason to give up hope.’

In his most direct shot at Clinton, whom he never specifically mentioned, he said: ‘If anyone denies that people are frustrated and angry and, yes, sometimes bitter, then they are out of touch.’


He reserved most of his criticism for McCain, whom he took to task for reversing his stand on repealing President Bush’s tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Obama was introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who made much of Obama’s common touch, speaking well-worn lines about him turning down a job on Wall Street to become a community organizer in Chicago and about how he and his wife, Michelle, took years to repay student loans.

‘He turned down the big money,’ McCaskill said. ‘He went to do what was right for our country.’

In that vein, Obama told the crowd: ‘You can trust me. Politics didn’t lead me to working people. Working people led me to politics.’

After the speech, a group of painters and union members from Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee said that, in their view, Obama had made short work of the ‘bitter’ controversy.

‘I thought he handled that real well,’ said Robert Liphard.

‘He’s done it right,’ said Jarrell Miskenen. ‘He got right back on it.’

Liphard added: ‘What I’d like to see is a combined ticket.’ He said who was first or second on that ticket didn’t matter.


-- James Oliphant

James Oliphant of the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau writes for the Swamp.