Why Obama's 'The Private Sector Is Doing Fine' Gaffe Matters

During his press conference Friday, President Obama said that the "private sector is doing fine," and that despite that, Congress should pass his stimulus bill. This leads to the question, if the private sector is really fine, what would his stimulus bill do?

But aside from that, is the president's comment likely to dog him through the election? Or was it, as Democrat strategist Kirsten Powers said on Fox today, just an offhand comment?

There are gaffes and then there are gaffes. Some gaffes are embarrassing but tell us little or nothing at all about the candidate. Other gaffes end up telling us something fundamental about what the candidate thinks. During the GOP primary, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suffered the mother of all brain freezes when, during a presidential debate, he could not remember which government agencies he would eliminate. That gaffe reinforced a media image of Gov. Perry as not being very smart and killed his chances of capturing the GOP nomination. But it didn't really get at Perry's policies or what he would do as president, or tell us what he really thinks. It was a catastrophe mainly because it fed into a pre-existing caricature that the governor was already fighting to some extent. Texans with strong Texas accents have been fighting that caricature forever.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush committed one of those image-reinforcing gaffes when he reportedly was amazed at super market scanners. The media characterization of that incident fed the caricature of Bush as a wealthy patrician who had little connection with everyday American life. It helped Americans decide to fire a president they personally liked but whose policies were failing, in favor of an untested southern governor who, whatever his other faults, at least seemed to understand what was going on in the average American household.

President Obama has committed his share of gaffes, from 57 states to "spread the wealth around" to "punished with a baby" to talking about his nonexistent sons, but outside the partisan press they have not yet done much damage. They seemed ideological or harmless to most Americans and did not connect strongly to policy at the time. His gaffe that the private sector is doing fine, though, is different. It will probably dog him from now to November. Here are a few reasons why.