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.
1. It lit up social media. Within seconds of the president making his comment, Twitter went hot with a new trending hashtag: #doingjustfine. That hashtag, usually the province of people tweeting that they’re fine without someone they just broke up with, became an anti-Obama feed and shot to #1 in the U.S.It was probably the hot social media action that forced the president to walk the comment back later in the day. Twitter put the president’s comment directly into the American bloodstream before he even realized that it was a gaffe and could do any damage control.
2. It echoed what other unpopular Democrats think and believe. President Obama’s comment was not offhand, as Powers said on Fox. Sen. Harry Reid has said the same thing. Over the weekend, Obama adviser David Axelrod refused to repudiate the comment, even though the president himself had walked it back late Friday. The fact is, Democrats on the left (and who are largely unpopular beyond the left) believe that the answer to U.S. unemployment is to increase government spending and government jobs. Americans who have spent their lives in the private sector, though, know intuitively that government hiring only adds to their own tax bills. In one comment, Obama sided with Beltway liberals over Main Street. For those who really pay attention, it also exposes Obama for hypocrisy: When John McCain uttered a similar gaffe in Sept. 2008, Obama jumped on it and used it to maneuver himself to a position of strength on the economy. The more he and his allies complain about the GOP reaction to Friday’s gaffe, the worse they and the president look.
3. It hit two of Obama’s softest spots. Barack Obama has only held one true private sector job (at a Chicago law firm) in his career, and prior to the presidency he had never been an executive at any level. He has papered over this glaring hole in his resume with gauzy rhetoric, but saying that the private sector is doing fine, when it demonstrably isn’t, tore that hole wide open again — and it was Obama himself doing the tearing. The second soft spot the comment hit was the economy itself. The numbers are not good, and they’re easy to look up: In May 2012, the U.S. private sector economy created just 82,000 jobs. Over the past four years, the U.S. private sector is down nearly 5 million jobs. In no reasonable definition is the private sector doing just fine. By saying that it is doing fine, Obama exposed his own lack of private sector experience, and just how out of touch with real American life he is.
4. It capped an awful week for the president, driving the narrative that he is now a loser. Just last week, the president’s re-elect efforts suffered bad national jobs numbers, Big Labor’s recall debacle in Wisconsin, the three California municipal reforms, the swarm of scrutiny over the administration’s national security leaks, and the president’s own press conference. The president intended that press conference to generate some positive press and force the Republicans on the defensive regarding passing his stimulus bill. His previous stimulus bill failed, so there was already little interest in passing the second one. He also wanted to take the heat off the leak scandal by addressing it directly. He wanted to end a rough week on a positive note. But instead of generating positive press, the president finished off a bad week by making things much worse, and in a way in which he cannot blame anyone else. He said what he said, and everyone heard it. He seemed to be saying what he really thinks, and what he thinks is at odds with what most Americans know. His gaffe was not ideological, but practical: He spoke out of sync with what most Americans know and think. He looks like a loser now, and has given voters a reason to take a chance on giving someone else the job he currently occupies. Like the 1992 Bush gaffe, Obama tells voters that whatever his other merits might be, he is not familiar with their daily lives and thus is unlikely to be capable of making things better.