When a gaffe is more than a gaffe

ImageI’ve written here before about messaging gaffes, whether they come from the principal himself or herself, an authorized surrogate or anyone else. They force you to waste time and resources explaining what happened (or “revising and extending,” in Washington speak), rather than conveying the message you want to convey. They make you look disorganized, weak and untrustworthy.

One type of gaffe is even more damaging – a gaffe that reinforces a preconceived notion many share of you. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, committed such a gaffe earlier this year. And President Obama, trying to hang on to his job, committed one last week.

Speaking at a White House press conference on the economy, President Obama pointed to the gains – albeit very sluggish gains – in private sector employment since the economy bottomed out. He noted that while the economy itself has a ways to go, that “the private sector is fine.”

In the words of Carl Lewis, “UH OH!”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that saying the private sector is fine is a stretch at best, especially given the last two months’ unemployment reports (though it is true that public sector job cuts are responsible for a lot of the still languishing unemployment rate). More important are these realities:

1. Most people perceive the economy to still be bad (and in a lot of ways it is).

2. President Obama is perceived by many to be out of touch and incompetent on the economy.

Perception is very often reality. Because of perception #1, this gaffe reinforced perception #2. The President and his aides had to spend the rest of the weekend walking back his remarks. And you can expect this sound bite to get replayed frequently over the remaining months of the campaign, especially if the economy continues to languish or (even worse) slide backward.

In a lot of ways, this gaffe is worse than the one I mentioned from the Romney camp. While Romney’s gaffe certainly makes him seem unlikeable and ill-equipped to relate to middle class Americans, Romney’s campaign is not based on likeability. Mitt Romney is not George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, and, fortunately for him, he realized during the primaries that he couldn’t pretend to be so. What Romney emphasizes is competence and the idea that his private sector expertise will translate to getting the economy turned around as President.

Whether or not Romney’s message is true in reality is an entirely different question. But it paints the starkest contrast to an incumbent who inherited a rotten economy and is perceived (again, rightly or wrongly) to have made it worse. Obama’s gaffe, much like John McCain’s similar “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” gaffe during the 2008 campaign, makes him look oblivious to the problem, let alone to be the person who can best solve it.

4 Responses to When a gaffe is more than a gaffe

  1. List of X says:

    Since “private sector is fine” bit has been taken out of context, that statement is actually absolutely correct outside of its context: the private companies have been making some of their best profits in years, and have trillions in cash on hand.
    Of course, that has not translated that well to hiring, but that’s putting the statement back into context.

    • Joshua Brett says:

      Thank you for your comment. You’re absolutely right that many large corporations are flush with cash and just aren’t hiring with it. But the same isn’t necessarily true for small businesses.

      The point, though, is that people don’t PERCEIVE the private sector to “be fine” because they still see the official unemployment numbers above 8% (and the actual number is likely considerably higher). And perception is very often reality.

      • List of X says:

        Yes, you are right, in politics the perception IS the reality. The perception is that public sector is doing great, and private is falling apart, when in reality it’s just the opposite.

  2. G says:

    The private sector does what the government is incapable of doing. Making quick decisions based on market conditions. The economy has stagnated causing businesses to cut expenses so they can still make a profit. Since our government gives every indication that at some point in the future tax rates will go up, and with Obamacare looming, businesses sit on their cash to prepare for those rainy days.

    To say the “private sector is fine” is disingenuous at best. The private sector is simply reacting to horrible market conditions caused by too much government involvement. The federal government caused the housing crisis and the looming education crisis. The largest “too big to fail” businesses don’t complain too much since they get special treatment from the government. They can get waivers or loopholes around government regulations – including tax regulations – that smaller companies can not. This prevents competition from entering some of the markets.

    The government continues to pick winners and losers which will continue to drag down the economy, stifle competition, stifle innovation, and stifle job creation. Thanks for the forum.

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