“Keep playing – this kid’s a loser,” the great George C Scott says in The Hustler, as Fast Eddie Felsen goes up against the reigning champion, Minnesotta Fats. The novel on which the film is based puts it even clearer – it’s a story about failure, about the will to fail. For all his bravado Fast Eddie isn’t willing to test himself to destruction. He’s young, he’s pretty, what he’s got to lose is his narcissistic self-possession, the imaginary sense of his invulnerability. Even at the height of his power, he’s always holding something back, some flaw that will help form the excuse, the “but for that…”.

Bama is of course Fast Eddy in this analogy, and Minnesotta Fats, hitherto Jackie Gleason, is Hillary (fluid retention can be a bitch). “Look at that fat man move,” says Fast Eddy, unwittingly commentating on the source of his own demise. Minnesotta Fats is totally committed to victory because he has nothing else, is nothing else. Without a cue in his hand, he’s just another fat man.

Which is the long way round to explain Bama’s latest gaffe, currently playing all over the airwaves. Speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, the hippie heart of the great 60s satan, Obama made some casual remarks about the good citizens of Pennsylvania and the Mid-west, suggesting that “they haven’t had jobs for twenty five years, they’re bitter, they cling on to their guns, their religion…”. Mr Change was speaking loosely, because it was a closed event. Yet of course there are no closed events these days, and an audio tape of the speech pretty quickly ended up on the celeblog, the Huffington Post.

The thing has hit the mediasphere just as the Reverend Wright stuff was losing its charge, and a focus on actual programmes and politics was returning. Not only that but Obama had been chipping back Hillary’s double-digit lead in the same manner as he had in the early primaries – by stumping week after week, and converting people by the sheer power of his charismatic personal appearances. He’d slowly been winning over this pretty hardcore Hillary territory – now it sounds like he was kicking back in some gay hippie sauna, snickering about the rubes with his ultraliberal mates.

What was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking. He loosened the screws about five per cent, relaxing back into his old West Coast persona – Barry Obama, the Occidental college student, steeped in the new left and postmodern classics, Fanon, Marcuse, Edward Said, Cornel West. Despite successive transformations, beneath all the complexities, there lies the old “false consciousness” model – that people do not think what they really think, and that there are various reasons they do not see things the way they really are.

Obama has had to travel a long way from the simplistic form of that attitude, through community work in Chicago, to see that things were a little more complex than that – that the problem was less false consciousness of social life, than an absence of consciousness of social life, a diminished ability to construct an explanation of how things work, or more to the point, how things fail to for certain people, ie backwoods Pennsylvania and the Mid-West. Hence the general, practically contentless, character of his message, drawing people back to the most basic connection with politics.

But deep down he’s still this old new lefty. As, in a different sort of way is Hillary. But there’s one important difference between them. Obama pretty much began as a postmodern leftist, Hillary began as a Goldwater gal, a good little conservative, and then moved leftwards as the culture did in the 60s. In taking on a more conservative view of American society, Hillary is sloughing off a couple of layers, returning to her roots. Obama is taking on an extra layer, yet another part of his complex self-construction.

The damage for Obama is that the quote reveals him talking about people as objects, as simply shaped by large forces beyond their control, their values mere symptoms of a larger process. Yet Obama’s appeal to the public has been founded on the simple idea that people can once again become subjects, can regain control of their destiny – hence all the “we are the people we have been waiting for” malarkey. Hillary and her team never really understood this, nor did a wide range of boomer commentators – for the simple reason that they had come of age in an era of optimism, of a sense of possibility, when bliss was it to be alive, but to be twenty-two and grooving to the Grateful Dead was very heaven. Obama came of political age when the great transformative left programme was shutting down, greed was good and a plasma screen TV became the horizon of human expectations.

Indeed, even as analysis, Obama’s take on the rubes is a little simple-minded. True, people propelled into total social redundancy do tend to cleave to concrete symbols of identity and meaning – guns and God – but increasingly so too do people in good jobs and reasonably stable employment. The whole panoply of retrograde movement in American culture – intelligent design, born-again-virgins, gun craziness, an insane prison system etc – have as much to do with a wider sense of the culture coming adrift, and personal identity with it, as it does with the old mill shutting down.

Some might suggest that Obama was simply reassuring his moneyed up liberal west coast base in order to keep the funds flowing, but that makes little sense – the money flows into the Obama campaign anyway, much of it from the far-flung people whose lives he’s touching. No, any search for a greater strategic motive falls foul of the political version of Occam’s razor – if it looks like a stuff-up, it probably is one. It’s Obama, loosening the screws too early, holding something back, unwilling to throw himself at the wall.

Should it all go sour, Obama can walk away, still in his 40s, console himself with the thought that in the end, the country wasn’t ready for him, self-love intact. Eddie Felsen only beats Minnesotta Fats when he himself has been beaten down, lost his illusions that what he’s doing is anything more than a hustle. Then they break his thumbs. Will Obama’s lament in the decades to come be that of Eddy in the much underrated sequel, The Colour of Money — “It was over for me before it began”?

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off