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.”