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Obama Doesn’t Understand

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com.  In the article below he reflects on last Friday’s debate. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

In the first presidential debate on Friday night, Senator McCain tried repeatedly to cast Senator Obama as a naive lightweight who does not understand foreign policy. Seven times, McCain laid the charge that Obama just doesn’t get it.

-“Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”
-“And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy…”
-“What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone …”
-“I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power.”
-“If we adopted Senator Obama’s set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand there is a connection between the two.”
-“Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.”
-“Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand — or doesn’t get it — that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda.”

In schools, in the boardroom, even around the kitchen table, people tend to prove their knowledge by proving what they think to be true rather than by attacking their interlocutors for their failure to understand. McCain was deploying a peculiar form of persuasion that we see often in our politics: he was trying to make a self-referential claim by an other-referential jab. By calling Obama naive he was trying to imply that he was not. Since it is bad taste in politics (as in real life) to be a self-professed know-it-all, it was, McCain probably thought, a classier act to simply dismiss Obama as naive and allow the conclusion that he understood foreign policy better to follow.

Yet this was exactly the failed strategy that Al Gore used against George Bush in their presidential debates in 2000. Although some pundits thought that Al Gore was scoring debate points, many viewers came away thinking that he was a condescending know-it-all.

Even the most artful rhetorician of our time, President Ronald Reagan, had to strike the right balance of tone and humor to successfully get away with his “there you go again” rejoinder. This well executed line in his debate with President Carter in 1980 was one of the defining moments of that campaign. But it gained traction only because there was a growing consensus in the electorate that the decades-long liberal formula for solving the country’s economic woes was obsolete and in need of overhaul. “Do you still not get it” only works when the audience has already gotten it and moved on to newer solutions, leaving one’s interlocutor alone in the dustheap of history.

The problem is that in 2008, Obama is not alone in his views. There are significantly more voters tired of George Bush’s unilateralism, his hard-headed focus on the war on terrorism in Iraq, and his refusal to negotiate with rogue nations than there are voters who would prefer to stay his course. Unlike in 1980 when the country was moving to the political right, this year, many Independents will be apt to wonder if it is McCain who still doesn’t get it.

Senator McCain would do well to remember that the primary season is over and he needs to stop speaking only to his base if he wants to narrow Obama’s lead in the polls. The strategy of calling one’s debate partner naive (a euphemism for a fool) does not often get one extra points from neutral bystanders, independent voters. If Republicans were, like McCain, exasperated on Friday night with their perception that Obama just wouldn’t see the obvious, McCain probably appeared condescending to Independents with the forced grins by which he greeted Obama’s alleged displays of naivete. McCain needs to stop harping on the charge that Obama doesn’t get it but start proving that HE gets it – that many Independents and Democrats are looking to restore the country’s relationship with the rest of the world, that there are many Americans who see the war in Iraq as a foreign policy tangent to the brewing problems in Afghanistan. Maybe Senator Obama doesn’t get it. But do you, Senator McCain?

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