Uh-oh. President Obama seems to have learned nothing from the disaster of the "cling-to-guns-and-God" talk that almost derailed his campaign in 2008. He's back at it—blaming voters for failing to "think clearly" because they're "scared" about the economy:
WEST NEWTON, Mass. - President Barack Obama said Americans' "fear and frustration" is to blame for an intense midterm election cycle that threatens to derail the Democratic agenda.
"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared," Obama said Saturday evening in remarks at a small Democratic fundraiser Saturday evening. "And the country's scared."
Obama told the several dozen donors that he was offering them his "view from the Oval Office." He faulted the economic downturn for Americans’ inability to "think clearly" and said the burden is on Democrats "to break through the fear and the frustration people are feeling."
JustOneMinute suggests, mockingly, that this is an improvement over Obama's 2008 "cling" speech because
now Obama's critics are scared rather than racist or stupid. There's hope for us!
But of course the basic argument is exactly the same. It's vulgar economic determinism: When people are afraid for their economic livelihood they do foolish things, like clinging to their guns and God or, in this case, voting in opposition to Obama's presidency. When they feel more secure, they'll come around.
Even if there's something to this world view—and I can't shake it completely myself—it's a deeply troubling sign if it dominates your thinking three weeks before a big election. Especially this election. Insulting voters is rarely a good way to win them over. But usually the "blame the customer" approach, as Mark Shields calls it, takes hold in the wake of an election defeat. Obama has broken new ground by moving it up to three weeks in advance of the vote.
What if he's right? In two years, the economy will have recovered and voters will feel better about his policies. But the election is in three weeks, when—according to his own theory—voters will act out of scared, hard-wired confusion. Why make them angrier? ('You poor, scared, confused people, I know more "facts" and "science" than you do.') Always Be Condescending! It's a form of political malpractice—making yourself look good to supporters, and to history, and to yourself, at the expense of the fellow Dems who are on the ballot.
But Obama's talk Saturday night wasn't as bad as his San Francisco lecture. It was worse, in this sense: It's one thing to say those poor people in Pennsylvania are hostile to gay rights, say, because all their "jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them"—and that they'll change when they get the jobs back. It's another thing to say those poor people will change when they get their jobs back when you've had two years to get them their jobs back and have conspicuously failed. At that point, blaming "false consciousness" becomes a semi-delusional way of dancing around your own inability to remove the root of that false consciousness. A little humility is in order. If true humility is unavailable, false humility will do.
Maybe Obama was cynically making a pitch to his immediate audience—a small crowd of Massachusetts donors who might be expected to respond to the idea that they were defending "facts" and "science" against confused know-nothings. But Obama should know, especially after the 2008 San Francisco incident, that a candidate can't keep his words confined to a fundraiser. And this apparently wasn't a closed-to-press event like the one in S.F. We didn't have to rely on a donor/blogger like Mayhill Fowler to spill the beans. Reporters reported on it. Obama couldn't have been trying to cyncially play to the donors—he's not that naive! This must be what he really thinks.
Now I'm scared! What yesterday's comments suggest isn't just that Obama will get clobbered in the midterms. It suggests that after he gets clobbered he won't be able to adjust and turn the setback into a longterm victory the way Bill Clinton did. Clinton reacted to his 1994 midterm loss by acknowledging his opponents' strongest arguments and pursuing a balanced budget and welfare reform. Obama seems more inclined to just tough it out until the economy recovers and the scared, confused voters become unscared and see the light. Meanwhile, he'll spend his time in a protective cocoon.
A few weeks ago a right-wing reporter told me that worried Dem congresspersons who met with Obama left their meetings more worried than when they went in. I discounted the gossip, but now it's begining to ring true. We thought he was a great salesman. He turned out to be a lousy salesman. We thought he was a great politician. Instead he makes elementary mistakes and doesn't learn from them. He didn't know "shovel-ready" from a hole in the ground, and then somehow thinks admitting this ignorance without apology will add to his appeal.
I'd still defend most of the decisions Obama's made, especially on health care refom. I'd rather have him making those decisions than 85% of the likely Republican candidates. But for the first time, he's looking like a one-termer, even if the jobs start to come back. . . . 1:25 p.m.