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Obama’s Greatest Mistake and Low-Information Voters

Date posted: Thursday, July 19, 2012

How much do we really understand politics?

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President Obama received his share of flack last week because, when asked his greatest mistake thus far in office, he responded,

The mistake of my first term . . . was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. . . . But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.

This an incredibly useful, if not mandatory, question for presidents to think about but a difficult one for them to answer, since just about any answer will make them look weak and lead to a slew of “PRESIDENT SECOND GUESSES SELF, NOW THE TERRORISTS WILL WIN” headlines. Remember when someone asked George W. Bush the same question? Tom Shales wrote in the Washington Post that Bush “looked baffled and incredulous. ‘I’m sure something will pop into my head here,’ he said, noting the intense ‘pressure’ of holding a news conference on TV.”

Most reporters pegged Obama’s answer as indicating a failure to inspire, and there may be something to that. But I read Obama’s answer as speaking more toward a failure to educate and explain: the implication being that he’s right on the policies but believes people don’t fully understand them. Which, of course, they don’t. We established last week that collectively we know, like, nothing. Not you, dear reader—you, of course, know things. But many, many people do not when it comes to politics. Obama can’t quite say this, of course: it sounds condescending to say you failed to educate voters on the rightness of your policies. But it’s true, and as we head toward fall, for both the campaigns and the people, like me, who cover them, it is worth thinking about the implications of voter ignorance.

First, many voters don’t even know about most gaffes, even though they’re breathlessly reported, by those “in the game,” as if each might swing the fate of the entire planet. Take a few weeks back, when Obama said the private sector was “doing fine.” Never mind that the private sector actually was doing fine, sort of, relative to the public sector, which was the point Obama was making. Talking heads went into an uproar. A fatal error! People are struggling! And doesn’t he know you can never at any point in time say anything which indicates the private sector is not your #1 priority!? Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post asked, “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.” Of course, the faulty logic is revealed in Cillizza’s question’s premise: most people do not pay even passing attention to politics, especially not in June. And, lo and behold, a poll revealed that half of respondents had not even heard about the incident. (The excellent blog The Monkey Cage has all the details.)

Second, I question the effectiveness of fact-checkers, and I don’t just mean the difficulty they sometimes have at arriving at a correct verdict (more on this in a future column). Ads, particularly negative ads, target low-information voters. These ads often—how shall we say it?—stretch and then batter the truth. Sure, there are fact checkers, and if an ad is deemed egregiously dishonest, the political apparatus may bring pressure on a campaign to back away from the charge. But if this doesn’t happen, what effect do fact-checkers have? How often are their verdicts reaching low-information voters? Not often, I suspect.

Third—and I suspect that this is what Obama was getting at when discussing his “biggest mistake”—many voters are so far removed from understanding the mechanisms of government that it becomes difficult to accurately punish and reward politicians for their actions and the results that come under their watch. (This can be difficult even for those who follow politics!) For instance, how much should voters blame Obama for the lousy economy? How aware are they that Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats blocked the original stimulus from being larger, and that thereafter the political climate all but eliminated the possibility of a second stimulus? Do voters understand the role that Republicans played in preventing the passage of the DREAM Act and the closure of Guantanamo Bay? Or in their eyes are these just campaign promises Obama made on which he failed to follow through?

Finally, it’s worth noting that voter ignorance, in combination with a variety of other factors, is what produces and maintains the conservative fever dream that if the people just knew about Obama—if they knew the truth—they never would have elected him in the first place. The other phenomena are ideas held dear by various conservatives: that Democratic presidencies are not legitimate (see: Clinton, Bill); that Obama is a strange and mysterious other; that the lamestream liberal media didn’t vet the president; and that it is the job of conservatives to, in the words of National Review founder Bill Buckley, stand athwart history yelling stop.

But this only goes so far. John Stewart has joked that the interview and calling-references stage is over; it’s performance review time. Still, the Romney campaign recently vowed to expose Obama’s past—the crazy drug use, the mystery days in Indonesia, those missing transcripts no doubt riddled with F’s, the horror of radical community organizing. And so on.

What motivates this strategy is not just the Romney campaign’s belief that low-information, independent voters can more effectively be scared by decades-old skeletons than by a tenuous economy and uncertain future. They also hold in low regard their own conservative base. These people, after all, have been fed a variety of falsehoods about Obama for half a decade. They swallowed them whole, and they’re still chomping at the bit for more. How ignorant is that?

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

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