Does President Barack Obama really believe entrepreneurs “didn’t build” their businesses? Does his rival Mitt Romney really “like being able to fire people?” Welcome to summertime, when the fate of campaigns hangs on silly sound bites.
Political gaffes, catnip for heat-seeking media, are showing up increasingly in the form of what I call pseudo-gaffes. That’s a truthful and seemingly inoffensive statement that, taken out of context, reinforces the worst impressions voters may have about the candidate.
The leading recent example comes from a July speech in Roanoke, Va., where Obama said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Sure, Obama could have done a better job of phrasing and framing his remarks. But there’s also no question that, in context, he was talking about government-funded programs like schools, infrastructure and research that help businesses and the rest of us.
“The point is,” he concluded, “that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” In a perfect world, that would be a good jumping-off point for a serious debate about the role of government. Instead, the Romney campaign released an ad that made the remark sound hostile to businesspeople.
Romney himself claimed Obama’s remarks suggested that “Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple,” even though Romney sounded a lot like Obama in a later address to Olympic athletes. “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power,” he said. So far, I have not heard anyone accuse Romney of being hostile to Olympians, but the campaign isn’t over yet.
Even so, the Romney ad must have touched a nerve because Obama produced a response ad to knock down the “You didn’t build that” distortion. As I mentioned, the truthfulness of a pseudo-gaffe is less important than its effectiveness in reinforcing widely held perceptions.
Democrats know, based on their response after Romney answered a New Hampshire voter in January like this: “I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people that provide services to me.”
“I like being able to fire people,” soon turned up in Democratic National Committee web video, along with a clip of Donald Trump delivering his trademark, “You’re fired.” Neither side is letting context get in the way of a good gaffe — or pseudo-gaffe.
But in politics, does truth matter? Quite often, it’s less significant than “truthiness,” Stephen Colbert’s term for a “truth” unsupported by anything but a person’s intuitive gut feelings or because it “feels right.”
Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely of Duke told NPR’s Ari Shapiro that voters in an online survey showed a surprisingly high tolerance for lying in politics — on behalf of their political side.
Ariely, author of “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everybody, Especially Ourselves,” also noted, “by the way, for Democrats this was a slightly more endorsed position than for the Republicans.” Or, in fairness, maybe the Democrats were more honest about their biases.
Either way, we Americans are well accustomed to being lied to by politicians, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Both candidates have suffered in public approval after a summer of brutal campaigning, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests: About 43 percent feel worse about Obama, 27 percent feel more favorable, and Romney fares better by only one point, making a statistical dead heat.
Overall, polls have hardly budged. Obama has led Romney by a mere one- to two-point margin since last October, according to an average of major polls by Real Clear Politics, a political aggregation website. Tight polls only heighten the ferocity of campaigns.
Watch for the action to heat up after Labor Day, a traditional season for voters to become more engaged. Both candidates say they want to stick to “the issues,” but we can expect both campaigns and both parties to pound away with messages that make their opponents the issue. I hope we can handle the truthiness.