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.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Economics and Business, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. J-Dub says:

    You would think President Obama would remember McCain saying “the fundamentals of our economy are strong”, right before everything went to shit.

  2. Kinky Beats says:

    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.

    If the goal is to turn the conversation towards one of a comparison of the two candidates, Romney sure as hell didn’t help himself by responding to Obama’s gaffe with this comment:

    “He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we
    need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of
    Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and
    help the American people.”

    Now let’s see if the press continues to get stuck on Obama’s gaffe or if they do the more responsible thing and start reporting on Romney’s response which says a lot about the two candidates’ policies.

  3. rodney dill says:

    An arguably bigger gaffe by your opponent could wipe out just about any gaffe made at this point.

    Time is on the side of the one who gaffes early.

  4. anjin-san says:

    He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers.

    A revealing comment by Romney. I guess he is just going by the areas his homes are in, where there is never a shortage of firemen, police, and teachers. The people who count are getting the government services they need, and everyone else can help themselves to some cake…

  5. michael reynolds says:

    The answer is that everything matters. The question is how much.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Meh. I don’t think Zombieland will care all that much about what Obama said about the economy. They’ll care a great deal, however, about how and what the economy actually is doing for them.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Short answer: no.

    What will matter are the state of the economy and, if it’s about where it is now or worse, whether the electorate has the impression that the president is doing something about it.

  8. paladin says:

    Both Kinky and a-j make the same point: considering the utter failure of the “stimulus” which gave federal tax dollars to the states to prop up reliable Democrat voter public employee unions, but which only kickied the can down the road for state governments that were in a world of hurt, but could therefore delay the inevitable hard choices, thanks to Uncle Sugar. So why the hell should taxpayers in Texas, who have made the hard choices about government jobs, be forced to finance teachers, firefighters, etc. in spendthrift states like Illinois which routinely cave in to union demands?

    During the last “stimulus” some state governments used the money to pay down their deficits and those which used the money to hire more teachers, etc. were forced to fire them after the federal money ran out.

    Every state, city and district has the power to tax their citizens in order to hire teachers, firefighters, cops, etc. How is this a federal concern?

  9. MBunge says:

    “Yes, there are legitimate questions about the President’s understanding of how the private sector operates.”

    No, there aren’t. The people who lack an understanding of how the private sector operates would be the people advocating policies the same damn policies that have produced vast income inequality and came thisclose to destroying the global economy.

    Mike

  10. mattb says:

    In the wake of the constant repetition of Obama’s comment on the economy and the negative coverage that he’s been receiving, I’m interested to see how conservatives talkers will have to spin their taken-for-granted belief that the media is in the bag for Obama.

    While it is true thata majority of reporters self identify as liberal, the legs on this particular story (as with other liberal politician gaffes) demonstrate how reporters and pundits as a whole are interested in telling a “compelling and ongoing” story that will keep everyone tuning back in to hear what happens next.

  11. MBunge says:

    @paladin: “which only kickied the can down the road for state governments that were in a world of hurt”

    And this is what I mean. If all the stimulus did was delay some tough choices, it’s far better to make those choices in the context of an economy that is stagnant or growing very slowly as opposed to trying to impose massive and painful budget cuts and other restructuring in the midst of a global economic collapse that teetered on the brink of another depression.

    Mike

  12. WR says:

    @mattb: “In the wake of the constant repetition of Obama’s comment on the economy and the negative coverage that he’s been receiving, I’m interested to see how conservatives talkers will have to spin their taken-for-granted belief that the media is in the bag for Obama”

    Easy. “This gaffe is so terrible that even the Obama-worshipping media has to repeat it.”

    It’s called the “even the liberal New Republic” syndrome.

  13. paladin says:

    Mike: “the same damned policies that have produced vast income inequality and came thisclose to destroying the global economy”.

    So I have to ask:

    Is your “vast income inequality and global economy” better than it was four years ago?

    Really?

    The EU is better off than four years ago?

    Black umemployment is better off than it was four years ago?

    Unemployment is better now than it was four years ago?

    Dance monkey, dance!

  14. paladin says:

    Mike, “massive and painful budget cuts and other restructuring” never happen in good times; then it’s all about expanding government with all that new juicy money—it’s never about austerity.

    Take it from me—I’m from Illinois!

  15. anjin-san says:

    Dance monkey, dance!

    I think you have that covered already Skippy…

  16. MBunge says:

    Thanks for demonstrating my point, paladin.

    Mike

  17. Hello World! says:

    Heck yeay things are better than 4 years go! I hope the right keeps asking that question over and over and over. Compared to 4 years ago my house is worth more. In fact 4 years ago people had a hard time giving away houses. My 4 01k has largely gained from where it was 4 years ago, its up 10% this year alone. My stocks are up from 4 years ago. Unemployment is lower than 4 years ago….i could go on, so go ahead righties, keep on asking about 4 years ago because any honest person with a memory knows we are A LOT better off today then 4 years ago.

  18. paladin says:

    OK, Mike, whatever.

    NOTE to OTB: How did you let the left hijack comments? I was a OTB reader back in the day when James was solo. I understand you are in a DC bubble which is obviously leftwing but it’s sad what has happened here.

  19. WR says:

    @paladin: Yeah, how dare you let any views that don’t echo today’s tea party talking points be expressed here? If I ever read a sentence that doesn’t comport with my ideology 100%, my feelings get hurt.

  20. PogueMahone says:

    @paladin: So why the hell should taxpayers in Texas, who have made the hard choices about government jobs, be forced to finance teachers, firefighters, etc. in spendthrift states like Illinois which routinely cave in to union demands?

    Illinois receives $0.79 for every dollar it gives.
    Texas receives $0.92 for every dollar it gives.

    This notion that blue states cost more than red states is ludicrous.

    Link.

  21. G.A. says:

    Obama is all done, it don’t matter what he says or how stupid it is anymore.Maybe if he attacks Iran he might have a chance but I doubt even that will help.

  22. G.A. says:

    NOTE to OTB: How did you let the left hijack comments?

    Mostly all of the cool people with great minds, common sense and a above average knowledge of history and the world got sick of being called racists.

  23. G.A. says:

    Unemployment is better now than it was four years ago?

    it’s 14.8%

    Black unemployment is better off than it was four years ago?

    I can’t count that high:(

  24. sam says:

    @Kinky Beats:

    Mittens:

    “He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

    When I heard that, I kinda winced. If you ask most people, if, given their druthers and a purse to match, they’d like more firemen, more policemen, more teachers, I’ll bet they’d say yes. Of course the purse to match is the problem today, granted, but people like firemen, policemen, and teachers. Mitt came off, IMO, as denigrating those professions, as writing them off as merely being “government workers”. The tone wasn’t all that great either, but then his political ear is, to steal from a good writer, in full cauliflower these days.

    I think it’s only a matter of time before Romney says something off-script that is so galactically stupid, factually and politically, that Obama’s remark will be completely forgotten.

  25. JKB says:

    @Hello World!:

    You say you are doing better than 4 years ago.

    So how much did you “donate” to Obama and the Democrats?

    With this information we can determine if you are fortunate due to the private sector “doing fine” or due to being a “friend of Obama”.

  26. @paladin:

    The comment threads are a reflection of the people who comment. Surely you aren’t suggesting that people be banned because they lean left?

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    I am in the private sector, and the last 4 years have been fantastic for me. I got laid off at the beginning of the year, but have been doing very well as a consultant. I gave Obama $300 last time around, I am pretty sure that has nothing to do with anything.

    Sorry pal, but you come off as a bitter guy who is looking to blame someone other than the guy in the mirror for coming up short. You inference that only “friends of Obama” are doing well is laughable.

  28. mattb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Surely you aren’t suggesting that people be banned because they lean left?

    Actually, I think he’s hoping people will be banned for questioning any aspect of conserative/right ideology (or simply disagreeing with him).

    You know, conservative thought needs to be protected from *gasp* liberal thread hijackers who… umm… present a different opinion on the topic being commented on.

    I mea, come one Paladin, I thought liberals were supposed to be the ones who were so afraid of discussion and facts that they censored people out of existence. Do you mean that Rush is wrong?

    @G.A.:

    Mostly all of the cool people with great minds, common sense and a above average knowledge of history and the world got sick of being called racists.

    Thin skinned quitters, one and all. I mean look at you and Jay Tea/Jenos — no matter how hard we try you two keep coming back for more rounds of the good (or maybe not so good) fight. 😉

  29. al-Ameda says:

    It will matter as much or less than Romney’s investments in the Cayman Islands or the installation of a car elevator in his La Jolla home.

    Not a single vote will be changed by Obama’s remarks.

  30. G.A. says:

    The comment threads are a reflection of the people who comment. Surely you aren’t suggesting that people be banned because they lean left?

    How about since they all sound exactly the same, almost word for word we get a filter that singles out the best talking point with the least amount of words in it so we don’t have to read the volumes of the same crap over and over?

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @PogueMahone:
    California receives 80 cents for every dollar it sends to the Feds.

  32. G.A. says:

    Not a single vote will be changed by Obama’s remarks.

    lol, dude!!! Obama is toast………..

    You need to start a draft some body that’s not a complete out in the open neo marxist crap artist puppet before its to late.

  33. mattb says:

    @G.A.:

    How about since they all sound exactly the same, almost word for word we get a filter that singles out the best talking point with the least amount of words in it so we don’t have to read the volumes of the same crap over and over?

    No offense, but have you read comments on the threads where there have been a significant number of conservative commentators? I mean recently Jenos got Jan and Eric F confused…

    Generally speaking, parties are made up of people who agree of a number of topics. So it’s not surprising that people would express the same ideas.

  34. Rob in CT says:

    “Complete out in the open neo marxist crap artist puppet.”

    It’s like delusional conservative word salad bingo!

  35. al-Ameda says:

    @paladin:
    The Right is so cute and endearing when they complain about
    Being outnumbered and victimized by Liberals.

  36. al-Ameda says:

    @G.A.:
    He’s toast? Wall Street and your beloved 1% caused the 2008 crash of the economy that resulted in $14 trillion in income and wealth being lost, and you think Obama is toast?

  37. jan says:

    @al-Ameda:

    “It will matter as much or less than Romney’s investments in the Cayman Islands or the installation of a car elevator in his La Jolla home.

    Not a single vote will be changed by Obama’s remarks.”

    I agree. Campaigns take on the looks of sine waves, as they undulate between rolling highs and lows.

    As another poster also said, it’s sensationalism will be dimmed once another misspeak is made by either Romney or Obama, himself.

  38. Scott F. says:

    @paladin:
    Personally, I think OTB could use more people from the right who can hold their own in a debate. Trouble is, empty sentences like this…

    OK, Mike, whatever.

    …don’t pass muster.

    Refute Mike with facts and you might convince somebody you’ve got a valid point to make. It would help if you could provide some data to back up your positions, like PogueMahone does above. The baseless assertions and echo chamber talking points that fill the typical right-wing comment here will get you nowhere. At the very least, try a little harder than G.A. does.

  39. anjin-san says:

    Personally, I think OTB could use more people from the right who can hold their own in a debate.

    I had a lot less gray hair when I first had that same thought. Still waiting for them to show up.

  40. paladin says:

    Oh wow a-A, you got me! You won, I lost.

    Hey, ScottF, here are a-A’s “facts”:

    “The Right is so cute and endearing when they complain about Being outnumbered and victimized by Liberals”.

    There’s yer typical liberal “facts”.

    Impressive, no?
    Happy now?

  41. Dave Schuler says:

    @al-Ameda:

    California receives 80 cents for every dollar it sends to the Feds.

    That much? Illinois receives 75 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington, DC.

  42. Scott F. says:

    @anjin-san:
    Your comment here and the one directly below it are like the last 3+ years of national politics in microcosm. One side wanting and waiting for grown-up interaction and the other side flinging poo.

  43. Hello World! says:

    @JKB: Actually, I run an IT department for a small community bank. We almost went under, except we got tarp money. We paid it back. We are making money again and had our Risk Rating upgraded. 230 people did not loose their jobs. I have never donated to a presidential campaign before so I cannot feed your conspiracy theories about who Obama helps and why, but you do have me thinking that I really should donate to his campaign this year!

  44. mattb says:

    @Scott F.:

    Personally, I think OTB could use more people from the right who can hold their own in a debate.

    Add me to that group of people. Sadly though, Paladin is not one of those people. More sadly he thinks he is — and probably that talk radio style “discussion and debate” is an example of how a good forum should be run (not to mentions discussions should be had).

  45. mattb says:

    @paladin:

    Hey, ScottF, here are a-A’s “facts”:

    “The Right is so cute and endearing when they complain about Being outnumbered and victimized by Liberals”.

    There’s yer typical liberal “facts”.

    You’re right, that was a factless comment. Of course, you’re entire argument about “liberal ‘facts'” would have been a lot stronger if… you know… you had address the numerous comments that surrounded that one that actually brought real facts to dispute your points (like somehow Texas pays for Illinois).

    Kinda sucks when you think you’re riding on a high horse, but it turns out you’re just a jackass.

  46. al-Ameda says:

    @paladin:

    al-Ameda: “The Right is so cute and endearing when they complain about being outnumbered and victimized by Liberals”.

    There’s yer typical liberal “facts”.

    Are you okay? I made a statement of opinion. Do you understand the difference between a statement of ‘fact’ and a statement of opinion?

    Here’s the difference:
    Statement of Fact: “Mitt Romney tied Seamus to the roof of his car and drove to Canada.”
    Statement of Opinion: “Seamus was probably not amused.”

  47. anjin-san says:

    @ Hello World!

    Glad to hear things have turned around.

  48. WR says:

    @G.A.: “How about since they all sound exactly the same, almost word for word ”

    We sound the same to you because we understand grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. What sounds like repetition to you is actually just the English language. You should look it up one day — you might find you enjoy employing it every once in a while.

  49. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @al-Ameda: California receives 80 cents for every dollar it sends to the Feds.

    Then why aren’t you on the side that says, “then California — along with everyone else — should send less to the Feds?”

    Come on over — the water’s fine!

  50. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Then why aren’t you on the side that says, “then California — along with everyone else — should send less to the Feds?”

    It is simple. The side that wants to send less to the Feds wants to begin privatization of MediCare which in the future will shift hundreds of billions of dollars in health care and insurance expenses onto retiree on fixed pension incomes, while at the same time those same people want to reduce the top income tax bracket to 25% from 34%, a huge transfer of resources to the wealthiest people in America.

  51. al-Ameda says:

    @G.A.:

    14.8%?

    Interesting – conservatives are redefining the unemployment rate for campaign purposes?

  52. G.A. says:

    He’s toast? Wall Street and your beloved 1% caused the 2008 crash of the economy that resulted in $14 trillion in income and wealth being lost, and you think Obama is toast?

    lol …..and I thought Obama getting elected was the cause of that along with the crap passed by him and his comrades in congress.

    It’s like delusional conservative word salad bingo!

    I call em skills…

    Personally, I think OTB could use more people from the right who can hold their own in a debate. …

    lol…Who’s debating?

    At the very least, try a little harder than G.A. does.

    I don’t try hard at all lol..

    One side wanting and waiting for grown-up interaction and the other side flinging poo.

    he said poo….

    We sound the same to you because we understand grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. What sounds like repetition to you is actually just the English language. .

    🙂 no you all sound the same to me because you are all brainwashed with the same crap.

    14.8%?

    Interesting – conservatives are redefining the unemployment rate for campaign purposes?

    Yes to accurate.

  53. mattb says:

    @paladin:
    You know, your complaints that the facts don’t back liberal arguments would be a hell of a lot stronger if you had ever responded to the facts that were presented to you.

    And if you’d like to understand why OTB comments have “gone liberal” it’s that conservatives like you just punch out of a conversation when you get challenged. It’s been more than 24 hours since you failed to address any of the hard facts we challenged you with.

    Sorry to say, but conservatives like you are failing your side of the conversation.

  54. mattb says:

    @paladin: BTW if you are still wondering about:

    How did [OTB] let the left hijack comments? I was a OTB reader back in the day when James was solo. I understand you are in a DC bubble which is obviously leftwing but it’s sad what has happened here.

    Perhaps its because right wingers like you just post a couple pieces of crap in a thread and then never actually take part in the conversation that follows.

    Like it or not, but beyond Boyd, G.A., JKB, Jan and Jenos, its hard to find any conservatives who actually have conversations here. Usually its just folks like you, Wayne, Bandit and Drew who all pop up to spew a talking point, play the victim card and then disappear only to repeat the cycle on another thread.

    The left didn’t take over OTB. The right abdicated.