A week ago, her customers at Rauchut’s Tavern in Tacony didn’t have much to say about Barack Obama. But when she returned to work Wednesday, a day after the Illinois senator attempted to quell the furor over his pastor’s racially incendiary remarks, the reaction inside the corner bar was raw and unapologetic.
“People are not happy with Obama,” Gill said. “It’s the race stuff.”
Obama has always been a tough sell in largely white Northeast Philadelphia and in the city's blue-collar river wards, a collection of white ethnic enclaves where customers at the local watering hole are often born and raised in the neighborhood that supports it.
And his speech Tuesday, although widely praised by the pundit caste and Obama supporters, has only seemed to widen the gulf with the Budweiser class here.
More than a dozen interviews Wednesday found voters unmoved by Obama’s plea to move beyond racial divisions of the past. Despite baring himself with extraordinarily personal reflections on one of the most toxic issues of the day, a highly unusual move for a politician running for national office, the debate inside taverns and beauty shops here had barely moved beyond outrage aimed at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Obama’s refusal to “disown” his longtime pastor.
A day after the speech, local residents were left wondering whether Obama was candid in the last week when he said he hadn’t heard any of Wright’s most objectionable remarks, but then said Tuesday that he had heard “controversial” remarks while sitting in the pews.
“He lied to Anderson Cooper,” said Rodica Mitrea, an aesthetician and immigrant from Romania, referring to an Obama interview Friday with the CNN anchor.
The reactions are merely a snapshot of a slice of the electorate, but it is a highly coveted one.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton relied on this blue-collar coalition — Catholics, union households, ethnic Europeans — to win Ohio. It accounts for her significant lead in Pennsylvania polls, and represents the demographic that political analysts say Obama needs to make gains with in order to present the strongest case possible for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Obama built his lead in the delegate race with a different kind of coalition. He won white voters in states like Virginia, Illinois and Wisconsin. But in recent contests, he has relied on African Americans to offset Clinton’s strength among working class whites.
Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia political strategist, said the unvarnished look at race in America could help Obama in the suburban counties that surround Philadelphia, which carry an identity as a well-to-do, increasingly Democratic battleground.
“The speech plays only among the elites,” Ceisler said. “The average person on the street cares about the economy and the war and everyday life.”
Glenn Peter, 54, a patron at Rauchut’s Tavern, said he heard finger pointing, not reconciliation. He took issue with Obama’s explanation that Wright’s observations of a racist America were reflecting the racial scars of his past.
“I don’t want to hear that you are blaming us for him saying this,” said Peter, who is white and worked at an auto parts factory until it was shuttered several years ago. Cutting ties with the church “would have been the best way to do it. That way, I could have been able to listen to him again.”
Peter nursed his early evening cigarette and a beer at Rauchut’s, where Eagles memorabilia and decorative shamrocks feel secondary to an intimidating portrait of Frank Rizzo, the barrel-chested former mayor popular with white ethnic voters but with a mixed legacy on racial isues.
Peter said he’s never voted for a Republican for president, but if Obama is the nominee, he will support Sen. John McCain.
“I would have a hard time if it is Clinton and McCain,” Peter said.
Michael Smerconish, the morning drive-time host on 1210 AM WPHT, a radio station with a conservative lineup, watched the speech in person Tuesday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He appeared that night on MSNBC’s “Hardball” and called the speech “stunning.”
The comments from his listeners Wednesday morning were far different.
“It was a great speech,” one man said. “But what concerns me is that on the website for his church, they say they are unabashedly Afro-centric. … The underlying message is they are perpetual victims and they enjoy the victim status and by proxy, me as a white person is their victimizer. And as long as we perpetuate these divisions, we will never heal.”
Smerconish, in an interview later in the day, said voters needed to spend time absorbing the speech — “the most unmuzzled speech about race in my adult lifetime.”
“So here the problem is Jeremiah Wright is conducive to a 10-second sound bite and the speech is not,” he said. “This is the problem. The Wright thing is perfect for our short attention spans, and this requires a little bit of attention. It takes some sitting down and settling in and not a lot of folks are willing to do that.”
Mitrea, the aesthetician on her cigarette break outside Beautyworx Salon and Day Spa in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, said she watched the whole speech. And before the controversy over Wright’s sermons, Mitrea said she was 55 percent for Clinton, 45 percent for Obama.
“Now I am 100 percent for Clinton and zero percent for Obama,” Mitrea said.
As an immigrant who is now a citizen, Mitrea said she took offense to Wright’s comments that "God Bless America" should be “God damn America.”
“I love America,” Mitrea said. “I thank God I am here. I live a free life.”
Obama should have severed all relations with Wright, Mitrea said.
Jean Clayberger, who works at crafts store in the Port Richmond section, said Obama couldn’t be expected to go that far.
As she hand-knotted tulle for decorative communion crosses (within one block of her store are Polish, German and Irish Catholic churches), Clayberger said she supports Clinton, but she understood Obama when he said Wright is part of who he is.
“I know Obama is embarrassed by him, but he is sticking with him. He’s his pastor,” said Clayberger, 76. “Are you going condemn your own child?”