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Obama's Multiple Audience Problem--Skeel

 There’s a clear pattern to Obama’s three biggest recent slip-ups– the controversy over his former pastor’s anti-American remarks, his economic advisor’s alleged assurance to Canadian officials that he doesn’t really mean the critical things he says about Nafta, and now his suggestion at a San Francisco fund-raiser that dire economic straits have caused small town Pennsylvania voters to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them ...”  In each case, the original remarks seem to have been acceptable to their intended audience, but deeply disturbing to a different audience.

Speaking effectively to multiple audiences is one of the trickiest challenges of any political campaign.   Roughly speaking, there seem to be three strategies for pulling this off.

The first and most obvious is simply to say (and mean) more or less the same thing to every audience.  Second, a politician can tailor his or her message, saying one thing to one audience, and somewhat different things to another audience.  Third, one can try to subtly craft his or her message so that it signals one thing to its immediate audience, but is interpreted differently (or not picked up on at all) by other audiences.  As American politics has become increasingly polarized in the last fifteen years, the third strategy has become increasingly prevalent.  This is what Hillary Clinton was doing last night when she echoed Bill Clinton’s famous promise to make abortion safe, legal and rare.  This signals to abortion supporters that she would not allow any restrictions on abortion, while trying to antagonize abortion opponents as little as possible.  Republican candidates use the same strategy when they talk about a culture of life or appointing justices who respect the Constitution.  In important recent work, political scientist Edward Glaeser and two co-authors call this strategic extremism.

Barack Obama has tried very hard to use the first strategy while eschewing the third, strategic extremism.  But in a society as diverse as ours, it is almost impossible to say the same thing to every audience.  The candidate’s speeches and comments will inevitably come across as lacking in content (a criticism Obama has of course faced throughout his campaign) and may not satisfy anyone, much less everyone.  Faced with this dilemma, Obama has drifted at times to the second approach, saying different things to different audiences.

In my view, the most recent slip-up is the most serious of the controversies that have resulted, even if Obama’s word choice was partially accidental.  Unlike with the first two, the words here were Obama’s own.  Moreover, they draw on longstanding stereotypes about strongly religious, ordinary Americans.  Some years ago, the Washington Post famously suggested that American evangelicals are “easily led.”  After the last election, the best-selling book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” characterized religious, blue state Americans as duped into voting against their economic interests.  And now, Obama’s comments, made to an audience that may well have shared this view, suggest that their faith is superficial, bitter, and manipulable. 

I personally hope Obama can surmount the controversy (although in the interests of full disclosure I should perhaps concede that my favorite of the candidates is McCain).  But the most important point is to expose and reject the longstanding stereotypes about the faith of ordinary Americans.  I assume Clinton was echoing the Sermon on the Mount, and it is a view I personally share, when she said that the “people of faith [she knows] don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they are materially poor,” she said, “but because they are spiritually rich.”


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Comments ( 3 )

What does it take to make HRC sound like the righteous candidate? The big O managed to do it! Of course it is also easy to point out that 'safe, legal , and rare' is inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps now she is in support of both abortion and hand guns. As a Philly area resident, those positions do seem mutually consistent!


I think there's a fourth strategy (though it might be a subset of the third): offer as few specific proposals as possible and keep your speeches as general and uplifting as possible. Political scientists have long known that one of the problems with interest group politics is that the winners and losers with regard aren't evenly distributed. That's why anti-pork measures continually fail: I may be annoyed at the "bridge to nowhere" but it doesn't actually cost *me* all that much and I do like that new $30m interchange that the feds are going to pay for. A politician who has to win a coalition of voters ought to understand this and shies away from statements or efforts that would provoke one part of his constituency over another.

The problem for Obama, I think, is that he's quite liberal (in the ordinary sense that we use the term) and recognizes that he needs to temper some of his views in order to win a national election. There's nothing awful about that (it's part of the genius of the American electoral system, in fact) but in the YouTube era, it's hard to manage. 20 years ago, his remarks would have never come out.

One pedantic thing to note: I don't buy the idea that we're all that polarized politically. Even the defenders of the "culture war thesis" acknowledge that, at the popular level, there's a lot of consensus. Reflecting on the 40-year anniversary of MLK's assassination, I was struck by the sheer tumult of the time: killings, riots, urban disorder, bad hair, etc. By those standards, I'm a bit more sanguine. What's happened is that our parties have become more ideologically sorted and we have less mediated communication channels - so our disputes move much more quickly to the forefront and get a lot more play.

Why are these "slip-ups"? They seem pretty revealing to me and very instructive to voters.

His wife, his pastor and the neighbors in whose home he launched his political career all have the same opinion of America. He either agrees with them and lacks the courage to tell us or he disagrees with them and lacks the courage to confront them. Doesn't that speak volumes about the guy?

Assuming he's the nominee for the Democrats, take a look at his opponent, John McCain. The man can't lift his arms over his head due to permanent physical damage from the torture he endured in a prisoner of war camp, torture that did not break him.

Why are the recent revelations about Obama "slip-ups" and not character-revealing events that make your voting decision that much easier?