Running for president has always been a Herculean task, requiring long hours, intense scrutiny and pretending to enjoy noxious state fair food. However, in the past decade, nominees for the highest office must now ensure that every uttered word is on message and politically correct. The worst violations are latched onto by their opponent, repeated endlessly in strident e-mails and ads, and become the media’s favorite topic du jour: the gaffe. In the past months, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have given innumerable speeches, almost all of which were recorded (sometimes to the candidate’s chagrin). At times, their comments have gotten them into trouble, either because of an honest mistake, a politically unpopular statement or because their true beliefs accidentally got caught on tape. Although no election is decided by one sound bite (not even the infamous “Read My Lips” comment by then-President George H.W. Bush), they have a notable impact on shaping the candidate’s image. Whether it made Obama sound like a government-obsessed socialist, or caused Romney to look like the Monopoly Guy, these gaffes have been the center of attention in the presidential campaign this summer.1.“You didn’t build that.”
The first of many comments that made Obama seem insensitive to business owners big and small, this infamous line was delivered July 13th in Roanoke, Virginia. The speech was about how success is built by many influences, from education to hard work to, yes, some government subsidies. While some have argued that the quote was taken out of context, and that the president gave due credit to individual initiative, many commentators still disagreed with the Obama’s basic sentiment and about the proper role of government. Conservatives jumped in with both feet, creating numerous memes, emblazoning it on merchandise, and the Republican Party even made “We Built It” the theme of their convention’s second day. The GOP caught flak for that last choice once records came out that the convention stadium was constructed with 62 percent public funding, a solid example of Obama’s comment on spending on infrastructure. As one of the catchiest gaffes by either side this election, this statement has definitely shaped public perception of Obama as unappreciative of private enterprise.
2.“I like being able to fire people.”
Although this particular statement was from last January, the comment has decidedly helped portray Romney as an uncaring executive focused entirely on the bottom line. Referring to health care providers, and the ideal competitive environment with options for all, Romney was providing a contrast to Obamacare. Like many gaffes, this quote was taken somewhat out of context, as he was explaining how if a certain health care option is not the best for you, you should “fire” the provider and pick a new one. However, this comment, tied with his work at Bain Capital, made Romney look like a Gordon Gekko-esque corporate raider who saved companies by downsizing the entire staff and shuttering factories. With an unemployment rate just shy of 9 percent, this was definitely an inopportune moment for Romney, who is still seen as a robotic businessman to many of his potential voters. Calling America a company probably won’t help.
3.“You can’t change Washington from the inside.”
In a forum on Univision, Obama was answering the translated question that all interviewees expect and dread: “What was your biggest failure?” After a quick pander to the audience about immigration reform, Obama mentioned that Washington can only be changed from the outside, by voters sending a message. While this may be true in an ideal democracy, there have definitely been numerous reforms championed by congressmen. Additionally, having the most powerful person in Washington say that no change can come from there is pretty disheartening. Romney trumpeted afterwards that Obama “threw in the white flag of surrender.” Creating a discussion on whether the president is incompetent or whether he was just faced with the most divisive Congress in a century, this comment could have been a rallying call for outside voters to engage, but became just another gaffe in the horse race.
4.The 47 percent comments
It’s always illuminating to see how politicians change their rhetoric when they enter a private audience of fundraisers (see: Obama’s “Bitter” faux pas). At a dinner for donors on May 17th, Romney mentioned how 47 percent of Americans felt victimized, entitled to numerous benefits, didn’t pay income taxes, and “will vote for the president no matter what.” This speech was surreptitiously filmed and released by Mother Jones just last week, and within hours it had found its way into online ads and opinion pieces. While the statistic sounds disturbing and is technically true, it neglects a number of aspects which clarify the number. A solid majority of the accursed 47 percent do pay some form of payroll tax and are part of the working poor, while many of the rest are elderly citizens who receive funds from Social Security. This has provided an intriguing, political aspect to this gaffe: Many of these income tax non-fillers actually vote Republican, and are therefore not implicitly in Obama’s pocket. Romney made a quick response video stating that he cares about all Americans, but as with all gaffes, the original video already wormed itself into voters’ heads. There have been predictions and commentary about how it will affect the election, but the truth will only be known on November 6th. Don’t forget to register to vote.