Will Obama’s Gaffe On The Economy Matter In November?
The President's comment that the private sector is "doing fine" continues to be a topic of discussion.
President Obama’s Friday morning Press Conference gaffe, in which he declared that the private sector was “doing fine,” was cleared up before the end of the day via a hastily arranged press appearance in which the President pretty much took back what he had said just hours earlier, mostly because it was clear that the comment was being gleefully exploited by the opposition. However, it was also the topic of discussion on all the Sunday morning news shows, with Obama campaign adviser seeking to downplay the remark and shift the discussion to something else, remarks he repeated this morning on CBS. The Romney campaign, meanwhile, has been all over the President’s statement and, just today, released a new web ad playing off of it.
As with all political gaffes, such as Mitt Romney’s off the cuff remarks about firing people and not being worried about the poor, I tend to doubt just how much these kind of things influence voter behavior. However, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza argues that, Obama’s comment is the kind of gaffe that has the potential to stick with a politician throughout the course of a campaign:
[W]hile it is true that midday cable television viewership is low, that rationale completely disregards the media world in which we live, where even the smallest comment can be amplified into a national headline in minutes. Is there anyone paying even passing attention to politics who hasn’t seen the Obama clip five times at this point — which, by the way, is less than 96 hours after he said it? Answer: no.
Then there is the reality that gaffes such as the one Obama made Friday are quickly — and, usually, effectively — used by the other side to score political points. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign already is out with a Web video featuring Obama’s private-sector comments juxtaposed against a series of dire testimonials from people about their economic struggles. “No, Mr. President, we are not ‘doing fine,’ ” reads the text on screen at the close of the video.
The true fight — and the truest measure of whether this gaffe will matter — is whether Romney can sell what Obama said Friday as a window into what the president really thinks. Romney is already trying to do just that, insisting just hours after Obama made the comment that the president is “defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people.”
The problem for Obama is that his remark plays directly into the story that Republicans are trying to tell about him — that he is a big-government liberal who thinks the answer to all problems is expanding the federal bureaucracy and who lacks even a basic understanding of how the private sector works.
On the other side of the argument, Time’s Mark Halperin argues that the political press needs to stop focusing on these kind of verbal miscues by the candidates:
The President doesn’t think the economy is “doing fine.” Mitt Romney doesn’t oppose firefighters, police, or teachers. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the President’s understanding of how the private sector operates. And, yes, Governor Romney supports less federal aid to states and localities for such jobs than the Democrats do. But shame on the media for starting the week perpetuating the self-fulfilling prophecy that Friday’s gaffes will be a big deal in the election by continuing to pump them. These gaffes will matter because we say they do.
How can the press ever criticize politicians for trivializing our politics when we focus on statements that have little to do with the candidates actual views or their proposals for the future?
I’m essentially on Halperin’s side in this argument. Whether it’s these comments by Obama and Romney, the Etch-A-Sketch comment by one of Romney’s campaign spokespersons, or the comments that Romney made himself (at least one of which was taken out of context), the political press spends far too much time concentrating on trivial matters like this that really don’t have anything to do with the issues at stake in the election. It’s something that activists on both sides revel in as well. For example, you still hear conservatives bringing up Obama’s “57 states” comment, something that was obviously the result of Obama being caught at a time when he was likely exhausted from a grueling campaign schedule. People tend to say dumb things when they’re tired, or when they’re speaking off the cuff, and the fact that they do doesn’t really tell us much of anything about what kind of President they would be or where they stand on the major issues of the day. As I’ve said numerous times before, the media does us all a disservice when it concentrates on irrelevancies like this. When they do, they end up creating a story out of something that really shouldn’t matter simply by talking about it.
Of course, as Cillizza points out in his piece, there have been times where comments that candidates have made have had a major effect on their campaign:
In 2004, the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), responded to a question about opposing funding for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq by declaring “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Republicans pounced (and kept pouncing) on the comment, arguing that it was evidence that Kerry lacked core beliefs and would say and do anything to get elected. The strategy worked as President George W. Bush (R) won a second term despite the fact that the country had already begun to sour on his leadership.
Four years later, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” even as the financial sector teetered on the brink of collapse. The Obama campaign seized on the remark as evidence that McCain was badly out of touch and lacked the understanding necessary to help fix what ailed the country.
“John didn’t lose in 2008 because of his comment regarding the fundamentals of the economy alone,” said John Weaver, a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. “However, it did reinforce an image being portrayed by his opposition of being out of touch on such matters. The danger for the president is similar.”
As Joe Scarborough pointed out in Morning Joe this morning, that Kerry comment came in March, 2004, long before the General Election campaign had even begun but it was the kind of comment that stuck with Kerry all the way up to Election Day. Now, for a number of reasons, it’s likely that Kerry would have lost to President Bush even if he hadn’t made that comment, but the fact that it was out there allowed the Republicans to pin the Senator as an insincere, slick politician who would say anything to get elected, not to mention that the comment just made him sound kind of dumb. Similarly, after getting a slight bounce in the polls from the Republican National Convention, John McCain was already falling behind Obama in the polls before September 15th and the deteriorating state of the economy, along with public disapproval of the GOP in general, made his loss inevitable. However, saying the economy was “strong” while the financial system was melting down around us, seemed to indicate that McCain had no idea what was going on. When he followed that comment up a few days later by “suspending” his campaign in one of most bizarre and ineffective stunts I’ve ever seen in the 30-odd years I’ve been following politics, he reinforced that image even further.
Cillizza goes on to note that the key to the President’s success in November involves turning the conversation away from the economy and back toward a comparison of the two candidates, and in convincing voters that he does indeed understand what’s going on with the economy. These comments undermine both those arguments and, if the economic news continues to be as disappointing as it has been over the past two months or so, then these remarks are likely to come back to bite him.