WASHINGTON — Conservative bloggers and talkers were never going to like Barack Obama much anyway. But now their outrage has found a target in the candidate's wife.
Michelle Obama, 44, an Ivy League-educated lawyer (Princeton, Harvard Law), was campaigning for her husband Monday in Wisconsin when she said: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction."
Predictably, her impolitic comment immediately hit critical mass on conservative cable TV, talk radio and the Internet. Democrats may not consider it a gaffe; Hillary Clinton's campaign made no comment. But the right's reaction is a measure of how differently politics may be played out when Democrats and Republicans face off later this year.
"I can't keep track of the number of times I've been proud — really proud — of my country since I was born and privileged to live in it," conservative commentator Michelle Malkin huffed in her column.
Rich Galen, who's also a conservative columnist, damned Obama by extensively quoting the conservatives' favorite chestnut, Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American." He noted that America is a place that "gives people like Michelle Obama the right to say excruciatingly stupid things."
And Rush Limbaugh? Let's just say that he got a lot of mileage out of it. "Her unhinged comments ring true for many liberals," his Web site's front page says, two days after the remark.
The goal, of course, is to paint the Obamas as wacko liberals out of step with average Americans who, presumably, have a great deal of pride in their country.
Obama tried to revise and extend her remarks Wednesday.
"What I was clearly talking about was that I'm proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process," she said in remarks to WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I. "For the first time in my lifetime, I'm seeing people rolling up their sleeves in a way that I haven't seen and really trying to figure this out, and that's the source of the pride that I was talking about."
Bill Burton, an Obama campaign spokesman, said the right's reaction wasn't a problem for the campaign.
"It's a ridiculous notion," he said. "Just because they're doing it doesn't mean there's any sense to it."
Whether that's true depends largely on what you already think; the kerfuffle is a sort of Rorschach test for what people see in Barack Obama, said James Klumpp, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland.
"For the Obama people, the explosion of comments . . . serves as a confirmation of the critique he is delivering, that this is just the old style of politics that needs to be changed," Klumpp said. "For those who oppose Obama, it is another kind of confirmation."
And for those voters in the middle, the undecideds and independents who swing elections? Such controversies tend to have short shelf lives, and whether this has any effect on those voters depends largely on what happens next. If the Obamas avoid similar controversies, this probably will be forgotten, Klumpp said. But if a pattern emerges, it could become a problem.
"Something else will come along," Klumpp said. "It may exaggerate the effect of this or diminish the effect of this."
For what it's worth, Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, told a cheering crowd Tuesday that "I am proud of my country. I don't know if you heard those words earlier. I am very proud of my country."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008