Outsourcing Attack Politics: Obama Apologizes for Racially-Insensitive Memo
Barack Obama had to apologize (again) this week. This time, it wasn’t anything that he did personally. His campaign drafted a memo that criticized Hillary Clinton’s ties to the (Asian) Indian-American community, and the memo (of course!) ended up in the hands of Clinton staffers who leaked it to the press.
Obama called the memo a “dumb mistake” and said that he scolded his campaign officials for it.
There is an important political communication lesson here. The content of the memo was an analysis of another memo that revealed the Clintons’ disinvestment of a blind trust to avoid political embarrassment of its contents. While the original memo is rather dry, the analysis memo carries the headline “HILLARY CLINTON (D-PUNJAB)’S PERSONAL FINANCIAL AND POLITICAL TIES TO INDIA” and goes on to note:
“The Clintons have reaped significant financial rewards from their relationship with the Indian community, both in their personal finances and Hillary’s campaign fundraising. Hillary Clinton, who is the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, has drawn criticism from anti-offshoring groups for her vocal support of Indian business and unwillingness to protect American jobs. Bill Clinton has invested tens of thousands of dollars in an Indian bill payment company, while Hillary Clinton has taken tens of thousands from companies that outsource jobs to India. Workers who have been laid off in upstate New York might not think that her recent joke that she could be elected to the Senate seat in Punjab is that funny.”
So the issue is certainly relevant to the 2008 campaign, as there are implications for American jobs being moved overseas. But for Obama’s campaign to not be sensitive to the racial/ethnic implications of such an acerbic tone in that context is disturbing.
First, it must be acknowledged that a sizable segment of the American public do not differentiate Indians and Arabs; accordingly, allegations of “ties” with that community work to undermine Clinton’s commitment to ending terrorism (which an even more sizable segment of the American public equates with Arabs, even though all Arabs are not Muslim, and most Muslims are not terrorists or even fundamentalists – it’s a shame that we even have to mention this!).
Second, in Obama’s apology statement, he states, “The issue of outsourcing is a genuine and important issue but to refer to one particular country was, I think, an error and I let all of us know that we've got to be more careful about how we communicate.” True enough, but outsourcing cannot be detached from India in the American psyche anymore than immigration can be detached from Mexico. Most of the “official” language does not identify the nations in question, but the implications are tremendously strong.
In all, this may have hurt Obama’s relationship with the Indian-American community, but it also hurts his position with racially/ethnically-sensitive voters, as well as those who believed that he might be capable of not engaging in attack politics. Such a belief is naïve, but for the young and formerly disengaged Americans that Obama had begun to draw into his campaign, this probably serves as a sour bite indeed.